Trips to Bilbao have long been a source of torture for Atlético Madrid, with Diego Simeone’s team not picking up a win at San Mamés each year since 2017. But this fixture on Saturday night was perhaps the most horrific to watch, as Atlético crashed to a 2-0 defeat.
Within the first few minutes, Mario Hermoso deflected an Iñaki Williams cross into his own net beyond a sprawling Jan Oblak after José Maria Giménez was turned inside out. Then, early in the second half, Héctor Herrera scythed down Iker Muniain, with Williams stepping up to convert the penalty.
Here are three things learned from the encounter in the Basque Country:
Changes are coming
There’s a common factor when looking across the weakest players at San Mamés: Luis Suárez, who is expected to leave at the end of the season, Héctor Herrera, who has already signed a contact in MLS, and Mario Hermoso, who has spent all week being linked with a move elsewhere, all seem to have their days at Atlético Madrid numbered.
The decision to leave players with a future at the club, like Ángel Correa or Matheus Cunha, on the bench, seems inexplicable. Even more so with players who have not been at their best but seem unlikely to depart, such as Koke and Rodrigo de Paul, and youngsters like Javi Serrano and Giuliano Simeone chomping at the bit for their chance. And the less said about Daniel Wass, the better.
Atlético look like a team playing without commitment to the cause or motivation. A top-four place and a future in the Champions League is at stake, yet many players do not seem interested. Rarely has a Diego Simeone team had such a clear attitude problem.
What it makes evident is that this summer will bring about significant changes. Where they will impact and to what extent remains to be seen, and will depend in large part upon whether this current squad can secure a top-four place. Even if they can, it is hard to imagine several of those who started in Bilbao remaining at the club come August.
The club seems to be steadfast in their backing of Simeone, and that means a thorough clear-out of the playing staff in the summer. It could be a turbulent few months ahead.
Atleti were unable to handle Iñaki Williams. Not for the first time in recent years, his pace was too much for Atlético. Williams has only scored more goals in his career against Barcelona and Real Betis than against Atleti. Time and time again, Simeone seems unable to set up a defensive unit to halt him.
Williams’s pace to drop deep and then run in behind was what made Mario Hermoso and Reinildo Mandava look like amateurs. It was essential in drawing both players into making challenges that saw them booked. Yellow cards that mean suspensions, of course, and Cholo Simeone will have to change at least two of his starting back three against Real Madrid in next weekend’s derby.
Hermoso, in particular, didn’t seem to understand his role in the middle of a back three. He was present, but barely. Too often he was tempted to step up and was pulled out of position, opening up gaps that Reinildo and a returning Giménez were unable to plug quickly enough.
Every time Atleti come up against pace, they struggle to handle it. Among the current squad, only Marcos Llorente, Yannick Carrasco and possibly Renan Lodi can claim to have the gift of speed. Others are notorious for their lack of it, and it’s no surprise a wily tactician like Marcelino looked to exploit it.
Top four is hanging by a thread
A win for Real Betis against Getafe on Monday would mean that Atlético Madrid’s advantage over the Andalusians with four games to go would be a single point. That’s with ties against two of the three team above them still to play. The final day pits Atleti against Real Sociedad, in what could effectively be a play-off fixture for any one of the positions between second and sixth.
What’s concerning is not just that Atlético have by far the most difficult fixture list of all the teams still in the competition, but that they also come into this run in dreadful form. Atleti have won only one of their last six in all competitions, having dropped five points against two teams in the bottom five in the process.
“You have to know how to turn up for the big moments, which have been few this year, and we’ll see who turns up now. The responsibility is mine, and I’m the first one to blame, so they can be relaxed,” Diego Simeone said. It was a message that appeared to be a message of support to his players, but it comes with a double-edged sword. The coach is stepping up to the plate and accepting the challenge.
But who from his squad will?