There was a bittersweet taste left in Atletico Madrid fans’ mouths after the 1-1 draw against Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League last 16 on Wednesday night.
The Rojiblancos dominated the game throughout and produced a far superior display, attacking clinically and defending confidently — topped off by João Félix’s seventh-minute header which crashed off the side of the woodwork and into the opposite side-netting.
More chances would come Atlético’s way, with Šime Vrsaljko and the returning Antoine Griezmann both hitting the woodwork, but a single lapse of concentration cost Diego Simeone’s team dearly. United substitute Anthony Elanga broke through on 80 minutes and produced a composed finish beyond Jan Oblak and into the far corner, leaving Atleti to dream of what could have, and probably should have, been.
Here are three things that we learned from this first leg:
Geoffrey Kondogbia is what has been missing
Before this game, no Atlético midfielder other than Kondogbia averaged more than 1.74 tackles per game. The Frenchman averaged 3.04. It was perhaps no surprise that such a physical midfield battle would provide the former Valencia man with a golden opportunity to shine.
Atlético’s midfield has lacked bite for some time, and it’s left the already-unstable defence looking incredibly vulnerable without a defensive shield in front of them. Kondogbia provided just that on Wednesday night. With no Koke (through injury), and with Rodrigo De Paul and Thomas Lemar left on the bench, the defensive expectations on the midfield fell to Kondogbia and he excelled.
Right from the very first minutes of the tie, Kondogbia’s crunching tackle on Bruno Fernandes set the tone. It was one of four tackles he made, and he won every single one of them. He also intercepted the ball three times and made an even-more impressive 10 recoveries.
This tie was dominated in the midfield, and Kondogbia was at the heart of it. Up against his former French national youth team colleague Paul Pogba, Kondogbia looked more like the player you’d break a transfer record to sign.
With Marcos Llorente providing the cutting-edge offensive runs down the right and Héctor Herrera looking to dictate the tempo, Kondogbia’s role was that of the ultimate destroyer. He made it look simple as he won turnover after turnover, with others trying to outmuscle him or manouevre around him but failing to beat him.
Props must also go out to Herrera for a strong performance.
Renan Lodi had a point to prove
Several players in Diego Simeone’s starting line-up looked like they were sending a message with their displays, such as Kondogbia and Herrera, Félix with his goal, and Ángel Correa with his relentless pressing.
But perhaps no Atleti player made a clearer statement on Wednesday night than Renan Lodi. Operating in the left-wing-back role that typically belongs to Yannick Carrasco, he offered a sturdy, yet threatening, alternative to the suspended Belgian, who was unavailable following a red card against Porto in the final group stage game.
When out of possession, Lodi dropped deep into a more usual left-back role, with Reinildo Mandava drifting into a more central role as Atlético worked with a back five. (Reinildo also featured on the left of the central three.) When in possession, Lodi used his pace to bomb down the left flank and attack Victor Lindelöf, who looked far from comfortable with the Brazilian’s attacking speed. Average positions showed that Lodi was in fact the most advanced of all Atleti players in the first 45 minutes, showing just how rapidly he pinned the Red Devils back.
Lodi created three chances, the highest figure for any player in this game, and his crossing looked dangerous. Whereas this has been an area of his game that has continually let him down in the past, he made a real threat of it against United’s defense.
It was in fact one of those crosses that set up his friend João Félix to open the scoring for Atlético. The perfect precision and weight on the cross made it easier for the Portuguese forward to send a header off the post and in.
Lodi tired in the second half and was eventually withdrawn, and replacement Lemar’s slip in defence allowed Elanga the chance to equalise. But if the Brazilian is able to build up his fitness levels and prove he can perform this way on a weekly basis, Simeone could have a real selection dilemma on his hands.
Jan Oblak’s issues aren’t just a poor run of form
Saturday’s game against Osasuna was possibly Oblak’s best of the season. He made four saves and denied 0.8 xG, and his 8.1 FotMob score was his highest since the reverse fixture against the same opposition in November. It felt like a much-needed confidence boost at the perfect time.
Donning the captain’s armband in Koke’s absence on Wednesday, Man United’s visit felt like Oblak’s opportunity for vindication. Instead, it served to destroy what little confidence he had left as Elanga caught him out to score late on.
The Slovenian did not have to make a save until some sloppy defensive positioning and a poor challenge from Lemar allowed the substitute in. But then Oblak was lost at sea. He took a step forward, hesitated, then took another one before leaning backward and throwing himself down slow and late. Oblak positioned himself far too wide and left a gap open for Elanga to convert.
While this may be what we’ve learned, it raises a question too. What can Diego Simeone do about it? Benjamin Lecomte is yet to make his debut for the club since joining on loan in the summer, and dropping Oblak would be a seismic message to one of the more popular figures in what is reportedly an already-fractured dressing room.
Sticking with Oblak between the sticks seems the only viable option, but this error is yet another one that has cost Atlético a crucial win. Aged only 29, a prime age for a goalkeeper, this sudden collapse has been stunningly-rapid and unexpected. Yet the longer it goes on and more mistakes are made, the more it seems that it may be a sign of a long-term trend, rather than a short-term blip.