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Three things learned from Atlético’s last-gasp win over Espanyol

The winner came in the 10th minute of stoppage time.

Club Atletico de Madrid v RCD Espanyol - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

As is becoming a pattern, Atlético Madrid had to wait until the 100th minute and the very death to find a way past Espanyol. For the second time this season, Atlético needed every second to seal the three points against the Catalans.

Yannick Carrasco came on as a half-time substitute and changed the game, weaving in and out of defenders before firing in on 52 minutes. A red card for Geoffrey Kondogbia followed and Raúl de Tomás scored from a free kick, but it was a De Tomás handball that allowed the Carrasco to score his second with the game’s final kick.

Here are three things we learned:

Atleti are slow starters

Over the last four games, Atlético have failed to register a shot on target in the first half of any fixture. It was February the last time they managed two shots on target in the first 45 minutes.

Atleti have scored an average of 0.58 goals per first half this season with an xG of 0.52, compared to 1 goal per second half with an xG of 0.81. Part of that comes from Atleti’s offensive threat, with 4.3 shots per 45 in the first half, and 6.4 in the second. It’s evident that Atleti’s threat is far more significant after the break, and this is not a new trend.

This becomes even clearer when playing against sides who are prepared to defend with a low block and sit deep. Much of Atlético’s play revolves around pouncing on the counter-attack, and it’s something which simply hasn’t been happening in the first 45 minutes of matches.

Club Atletico de Madrid v RCD Espanyol - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

In the first half this season, Atleti have averaged 0.7 counter-attacks, compared to 1.54 in the second half. That’s to be expected as games open up later on, but to more than double the figure shows that Atleti’s first-half approach is struggling. And when taking into account the opposition, the first-half attacking problems become even more obvious. You have to go back seven games to find one in which both teams scored before the break.

Across the season, Atlético’s goals conceded per first half is 0.58, the exact same figure as the Rojiblancos have scored. In the second half, the goals conceded increases by 0.02, to 0.6, while the goals scored soars to 1, 0.42 higher. Atleti are winning these ties in the second half.

Against Espanyol, Atlético put in 14 crosses in the first half, the highest figure for a first half since the win over Osasuna in November and the teams’s second-highest figure all season. Against Osasuna, 38% of those crosses found their target, higher than the 29% season average, whereas the number dropped to 21% for the game against Espanyol. Atleti were flinging in crosses with no end result.

Rehearsals for the new Kieran Trippier aren’t going well

With three right-backs in the squad between Marcos Llorente, Šime Vrsaljko and Daniel Wass, you’d think that might be a strange thing to learn. But this goes beyond the name on the team-sheet and stretches into the connections and link-up play that Trippier was so good at, being truly in sync with his team-mates.

Since Trippier’s exit for Newcastle, Atlético’s build-up play down the flanks has lacked the same fluidity. The 5-3-2 provided a temporary remedy, primarily by only giving wide licence to one player on each flank, no longer giving rise to the kind of overlapping runs at which Trippier was so adept.

The issue is Atlético have become predictable in how they stack up and look to exploit wide spaces. Adrià Pedrosa and Óscar Gil were able to handle the threat well on Sunday, and neither Llorente nor Renan Lodi created many opportunities in the first half. When they did, they were primarily from Llorente overlapping and linking up with Ángel Correa.

Early in the second half, Simeone tried a bizarre approach, doubling up on both flanks. On the right, Llorente and Correa, and on the left, Lodi and Carrasco. All four of these players have played in the forward option on the flank in the past, and only Correa has never filled in as a wing-back regularly.

While on paper that strategy adds pace and offensive quality out wide, in practice it shut down already-narrow spaces. Carrasco and Lodi stepped on each other’s toes, struggling even to find gaps in behind Aleix Vidal, far from the most adept of defenders. When Carrasco did so, it was often when Lodi moved inside or stayed deep, affording the Belgian more space to operate in.

Club Atletico de Madrid v RCD Espanyol - La Liga Santander Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

Intriguingly, Carrasco’s biggest threat, and the move that led to both his first goal and the corner which led to the penalty, was by getting down to the byline and dribbling past players. With Lodi in the same area, such a manoeuvre was more difficult.

What goes around, comes around

Sometimes, the only way to handle Spanish refereeing is to try to look on the bright side. That’s possible, right?

The positive: First of all, let’s provide a round of applause where it’s required. On 33 minutes, Jorge Figueroa Vázquez showed a yellow card to Espanyol goalkeeper Diego López for time-wasting. The Catalans had started the game as Manchester City ended it on Wednesday, play-acting and wasting time at any given opportunity. This yellow card reduced that, slightly, the kind of brave move which you don’t see too often from Spanish referees.

The negative: Shortly before half-time, defender Sergi Gómez stamped on João Félix in the penalty area, sending the Portuguese international to the floor. To a certain extent, it was normal for Figueroa Vázquez not to have seen the incident as the ball was delivered into the box.

What is far less normal is that VAR referee Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea decided there was nothing to review.

The very negative: Geoffrey Kondogbia’s dismissal was bizarre. Figueroa Vázquez brandished a second yellow card after a Sergi Darder shot was fired at Felipe, then deflected onto a sliding Kondogbia before it rebounded onto his arm.

Some have said the logic behind it is that any shot on target blocked by an arm is worthy of a second yellow card. But this shot was not on target when it hit Kondogbia’s arm. It is a truly bewildering and baffling call. Jan Oblak turning the resulting free kick into his own net added salt to the wound.

The very positive: With the last move of the game, Raúl de Tomás handled Carrasco’s corner inside the penalty area. It was only after the final whistle had been blown and a very lengthy VAR check that the spot kick was awarded. Carrasco converted with composure.

The end message is that had Kondogbia not been sent off, Atlético would most likely have won comfortably. Without Kondogbia, Atleti still won. It’s a glass half-full point of view, but you have to take what you can get when it comes to Spanish referees.