It was almost painfully unsurprising to see Atlético Madrid crash to defeat on the island of Mallorca at the hands of their former coach, Javier Aguirre. The Mexican out-Cholo-ed Cholo Simeone himself, with a deep defensive unit easily seeing out a controversial penalty awarded after Reinildo rashly stamped on Pablo Maffeo on the edge of the box.
Atlético couldn’t find a way back into the tie and now head into the final seven games of the league season with only a one-point advantage over Real Betis. Simeone’s side still have to play Sevilla, Real Madrid, and Real Sociedad.
Here are three things we learned from Saturday’s defeat:
Atlético have a mentality problem
Four points from a possible 18 against LaLiga’s bottom three teams heading into this weekend is a simply embarrassing statistic. Points dropped against Levante (one draw, one loss), Alavés (one win, one loss) and Mallorca (two losses) are what separates Atlético from a guaranteed top four spot. Had Atleti been able to secure a more reasonable 14 points from 18, for example — which would still mean two draws from six in games against the bottom three — they would be only five points behind leaders Real Madrid and we could be talking about a title race.
Yet, here we are — watching a team incapable of breaking down sides who sit deep, regardless of their form.
Levante had one win from 21 before they won at the Wanda Metropolitano in February. Alavés had not won any of their first six when they beat Atlético. Mallorca had lost seven games in a row before this meeting on Saturday.
Teams are confident that they can end a rut against Atlético. And it’s easy to see why.
Saturday afternoon’s game was decided by a midfield battle that Atlético didn’t perform well enough to win. Koke, Rodrigo De Paul and Geoffrey Kondogbia showed that none of the three in the middle were able to destroy and create. Granted, Kondogbia broke up play, but couldn’t turn possession into any kind of threat. Koke and De Paul were more recognisable for contributing almost nothing other than easy turnovers.
Again, Atlético only seemed to wake up once they’d gone behind. In 32 minutes, including injury time, with the scoreline at 1-0 to Mallorca, Atleti registered as many shots and twice as much xG as they had in the first 68 minutes. LaLiga is not the farmers’ league that some abroad would have you believe, yet Atlético’s players sometimes treat their opposition as if it were.
Atleti’s determined mentality last season to grind out results steered them toward the title. Yet time and time again this season, arrogance and laziness has been clear for all to see.
“With the sun, the dry pitch, and everything against us, it was difficult,” pleaded vice-captain Jan Oblak after the final whistle. Such excuses only demonstrate a concern about this dressing room’s mentality.
There was no ‘partido a partido’
Beyond simply the mentality issues mentioned above, this was a clear case of Atlético Madrid not living up to Diego Simeone’s philosophy of “partido a partido.” Never before have Atleti been so clearly distracted by an upcoming mid-week Champions League tie than in this case in Mallorca.
The team selection already looked distinctly anti-Cholo in that sense, with Renan Lodi, Šime Vrsaljko and João Félix all rested, providing starts for De Paul, Yannick Carrasco and Luis Suárez. Even so, the quality of those three players coming in should have been more than enough to see off Mallorca.
In the first 15 minutes, Atleti generated the entirety of their first-half xG, 0.18, and registered a quarter of their shots on goal across the full 90 minutes with two. There was some intensity to their play, but after that, the team reversed back to first gear. There was no urgency or desire to push Mallorca to the limit. It was evident that several players were playing within themselves, one eye placed on Wednesday’s fixture against Manchester City.
Those who did have that spark, players like Carrasco and Matheus Cunha, were those who are unlikely to start in midweek. But they couldn’t do it alone and quickly grew frustrated their movement and runs forward went unseen by their team-mates.
Should Atlético beat City on Wednesday, maybe it was worth taking Antoine Griezmann off at half-time and losing to Mallorca after all. If City see out their first-leg lead, then Simeone and his players could have made the task of securing top four even more difficult without any reward. This Atlético were a shadow of their usual selves, and it is inevitable that this performance will draw question marks.
Atleti lack pace
Everything about this performance was slow. Sure, part of that can be put down to a lack of energy or commitment from players who played a Champions League quarter-final in midweek and will do so again in a few days’ time, but this was extreme.
Much like Atlético in Manchester, Mallorca defended with a back five and sat deep, looking to reduce spaces by operating in a low block. That meant it was down to Atleti to create space with movement.
The issue was there wasn’t very much of it.
As mentioned, early on Carrasco and Marcos Llorente bombed down the flanks but found themselves with static centre-forwards Griezmann and Suárez failing to engage or anticipate their actions. Later on, when Cunha brought more dynamism to the attack, Carrasco was already tiring and Llorente was moved into midfield.
This performance was quite simply disjointed and lethargic. Substitutes tried to change that, with both Cunha and João Félix looking more lively, but they were often forced to drop too deep in order to engage. They then found themselves turning to face a five-man defence.
Thomas Lemar took a different approach following his introduction, trying to transition through dribbling or with stunning long balls or attempts from distance. His match ended with 0/3 shots on target, 0/1 long balls completed, 0/3 crosses completed and only 1/2 dribbles successful. The intent was there, the execution wasn’t.
This is nothing new for Atlético. and again relates to the personnel. The midfield and attack lack pace and lack playmakers who can compensate. Simeone needs to find an alternative up against teams who look to defend deep.