Having suffered to the last minute in the win over Manchester United on Tuesday, Atlético Madrid fans could be forgiven for wanting a relaxing win without any issues. That wasn’t what they got when the Colchoneros travelled to Estadio de Vallecas to face Rayo Vallecano.
After a tight first half, Koke struck four minutes into the second half to give the visitors the lead, but they had to hang on to see out the victory. Ángel Correa’s late dismissal meant it was truly backs-against-the-wall for the final moments of the tie.
Here are three things we learned from the clash between Atlético and their city rivals.
Koke is back
Fielded in the same position as against Manchester United, on the left of a midfield three, Koke looks liberated without the defensive duties of the holding role. He has been confident in his passing and tackling. Ironically, with less defensive responsibility, he has actually been more efficient.
Against Rayo, Koke won both of his tackles and sought to press to break up play. Rayo found it difficult to break down Atleti’s left, where Koke added extra protection between Renan Lodi and Reinildo Mandava.
Going forward, the captain was crucial, making two key passes and several transition runs to bring a threat Atlético have struggled to produce in recent weeks.
Back in the area of the capital where he grew up, Koke also scored his first goal since January 31st, 2021, with a composed finish that we don’t see often enough from him. It was the perfect moment to show how he stepped up and led by example, with a well-timed run and perfectly-placed finish from a difficult angle (a chance worth only 0.07 xG).
Pointing to his name in celebration, it was evident Koke knew the goal’s importance and that of the performance not just immediately, but long-term too. He wasn’t the only one to make a return to form, either.
Jan Oblak looks more confident and comfortable with each passing week, and Antoine Griezmann produced another strong performance, only missing that long-awaited goal. When it comes to looking at Atlético and seeing these three players at the core of it, it may be fair to say the tide has turned.
The only negative? Koke’s booking means he’ll miss the game against Alavés. Though, with Geoffrey Kondogbia back in action, it’s less a concern than it could have been.
Rotation doesn’t exist in the Cholo-verse
There was a surprise when the line-ups were announced and Diego Simeone opted to field the exact same players who took to the pitch against Man United in midweek. It was an unchanged line-up for the third game in a row, somewhat unusual for Cholo.
Simeone clearly feels that he is onto something with this system and these 11 players. For the first time in a long time, the defence and midfield both look balanced as individual units and appear to communicate and connect between them.
As touched upon above, it has allowed Koke to get back to his best, while in defence Reinildo’s arrival has changed the game. He has offered additional stability and defensive reassurance.
In attack, Griezmann and João Félix (who assisted Koke’s goal after a neat give-and-go) appear to be building a real connection. Their unselfishness and link-up play are helping them to get the best out of one another.
What may be of slight concern is what it means for those who aren’t among this starting XI.
To bring on Luis Suárez, Ángel Correa and Yannick Carrasco, among others, is the kind of strength in depth that very few, if any, LaLiga teams can compete with. However, it could also cause problems. Carrasco and Correa have arguably been Atleti’s best players this season, and now find themselves watching on from the bench with brief cameos. Suárez is a player who has never been out of a team in his career until the past few weeks.
How long they’re willing to sit on the bench and watch remains to be seen, and it could be counterproductive longer-term.
Atleti need to learn to cope with Spanish referees
It’s a recurring theme that Atlético feel hard done-by with the treatment they receive from referees, and not without good reason. But at Vallecas, it highlighted another issue. Atleti’s players just don’t help themselves.
Sure, there will always be ridiculous calls and decisions. Sometimes, you just have to take it on the chin. Just ask Oblak about his warning for time-wasting on Saturday.
Other times, Atleti players have taken needless risks in the heat of the moment. Whether it’s a “la concha de tu madre” from Correa at Vallecas or the “estás loco” from João Félix against Athletic Club at the Metropolitano, dissent is an all-too-common issue within the squad.
Only four minutes before Correa was shown a red card for “shouting” at the referee, Josema Giménez was also booked for dissent. There were warning signs that José Luis Munuera Montero wasn’t prepare to take any kind of insolence, and Correa fell into the trap. And in the aftermath of the red card, Stefan Savić was shown another yellow.
For those keeping score, that’s two yellow cards and one red, all for dissent, in the space of five minutes.
Simeone’s passion and animated style on the touchline sets the example, but Atlético cannot afford to continue to pick up so many cards for mouthing off. This time, Atlético saw out their one-goal lead. Next time, they might not be so lucky.