Atlético Madrid conceded four goals in LaLiga for the first time since December 2012 as they crashed to yet another humiliating defeat, this time at the hands of FC Barcelona at Camp Nou.
The team got off to a bright start as Yannick Carrasco found space to convert beyond Marc-André ter Stegen early on, but it was short-lived. Jordi Alba shinned a volley into the top corner, Gavi nodded in a header, then Ronald Araújo added a third before half-time.
After the break, Dani Alves made it four from the edge of the box and even a rare Luis Suárez goal was too little too late. Atlético failed to recover after Alves was sent off for a horrific challenge on Carrasco and still have not won at Barça since 2006.
Here are three things learned from the encounter in Catalonia:
Atleti can’t compete with those full-backs
It was depressingly predictable to see Adama Traoré leave Mario Hermoso behind him and then wonder where Šime Vrsaljko had gone as Jordi Alba volleyed in the opening goal.
As usual, Hermoso in particular had a torrid time in one-on-one battles with Traoré, simply unable to handle the player’s pace.
Daniel Wass replaced Vrsaljko at half-time, with Hermoso remaining on the field, and the fourth Barcelona goal came down his flank. Even with fresh legs, Gavi looked more energetic and able to beat the Danish international with ease.
Going forward, Wass continually drifted into a more-central role and looked unsure of himself. Kieran Trippier bursting down the flank on the overlap, he is not.
It’s understandable why Atlético brought in Wass for the right-back role as emergency cover. But Simeone must adapt to use him as he is used to, or train him, rather than simply put a square peg in a round hole — that is, if his suspected knee injury isn’t serious.
Reinildo Mandava was brought on shortly into the second half and immediately looked to firm things up on the left flank. He did so successfully. The end result was that Carrasco could have more of an influence and break forward down the left.
However, all the instability was no help to Jan Oblak, the goalkeeper who conceded four goals from 0.61 xG. He is not even a shadow of his former self, and there will be no quick fix to that concern, whereas the full-back situation could still be sorted.
Cholo is lost
January’s transfer business seemed to suggest that Simeone wanted to return to a 4-4-2 shape for good. Signing two players to operate as defensive full-backs seemed to make sense with that in mind.
So for him to choose a 3-5-2 to start at Camp Nou was a surprise, and even more so when it reverted to 4-4-2 with the score at 1-1. And then, Atlético went back to 3-5-2 at half-time. Before the hour mark the formation was switched again, to a 4-3-3.
No coach can try four different approaches inside 55 minutes and claim to know what works best.
Part of the issue came in that the initial threat had come from João Félix looking to exploit Dani Alves’ defensive weaknesses. But the change in shape moved Félix central, and with more freedom it allowed Alves back into the game. The 38-year-old could move centrally and dictate the tempo with much more influence, no longer needing to worry about an offensive threat on the counter. Where Atleti had him under control, they facilitated Xavi’s dream game plan, and gave him room and space to operate in.
Just as against Valencia, substitutions on the hour mark helped Atlético to settle down and show life. But, just as against Valencia, it took an hour for Simeone to get Atleti there.
Time and time again this season, Simeone had made the same mistake. The top four looks like a major challenge for Atlético and no time can be wasted, much less the first 60 minutes of every match.
The problem lies in midfield
Much has been said this season about Atlético’s struggles in defence, and their misses in attack, but little about what lies in between.
Both units that are failing rely on the midfield to operate efficiently, and that simply hasn’t existed for some time now.
Koke’s form has been a concern ever since injury in September, but more importantly than his passing or tackling, he’s not showing the leadership Atlético need on the pitch. Without a command or ability to dictate from the middle, Atlético’s midfield line is left a chaotic shambles. His role is to organise the central area of the field, yet he doesn’t even seem clear on his own role.
Rodrigo De Paul is another disappointing case. His vision should allow Atlético an escape route when pressed high, but instead he increasingly appears to be a luxury player. His passing and distribution are capable of being magnificent, but currently Atleti need it when deep in their own half, not when looking to break down a low block in the opposition half.
Alongside them, Thomas Lemar’s role is increasingly limited. Only four passes in the opposition half and 25 total touches in 55 minutes shows just how much of the game passed him by.
What is truly missing is a holding midfielder who can command a game. A player in the Gabi, Rodri or even Thomas Partey mould could add a layer of protection in front of the central defenders, adding more stability to the defence and dropping back in as the full-backs push up.
Simeone has avoided playing such a midfielder since Thomas left for Arsenal in 2020, and Koke’s half-hearted attempt to take up the role has been a woeful failure this season. Until that problem is fixed, it is hard to imagine Atleti will regain their former defensive solidity.