A 2-0 win over Elche was all that Atlético Madrid needed to seal qualification for the Champions League in 2022/23, and also to move ahead of Sevilla into third place in the league standings.
The trip to Estadio Martínez Valero was a nervy one with so much at stake. But donning the club’s fourth kit featuring the old club crest, Atlético secured a convincing and comfortable win thanks to goals from Matheus Cunha and Rodrigo de Paul.
Here are three things we learned from the game:
Always trust in Cholo Simeone
Ten years in charge, 10 qualifications for the Champions League.
This season has been far from the easiest that Diego Simeone has ever faced in the Atlético Madrid dugout, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that.
Yet, he’s got the job done yet again. An up-turn in form after the winter break, and reinstating players who had been left out like Geoffrey Kondogbia, Héctor Herrera and Renan Lodi, brought life back to this Atlético team — fresh impetus when the regulars were letting the coach down.
This season is still a disappointment given the high of winning LaLiga in 2021. But the objective has been completed and, as things stand, Atlético still somehow sit third in the table. It’s unlikely, but the Colchoneros could still end the season in second place should there be wins over Sevilla and Real Sociedad as well as Barcelona losses to Getafe and Villarreal.
The first 20 minutes or so on Wednesday were far from convincing and, in fact, saw Atleti on the back foot for much of it. Elche had 0.22 xG compared to 0.12 xG from Atleti, and won a higher percentage of their offensive duels.
Even over the full 90 minutes, Elche had 58% possession. But Atleti have won nine consecutive league games when registering under 50% possession. It’s Cholismo at its best. Atleti ground out the result and allowed Elche to play, pouncing on the counter with a lethal impact.
Simeone has always found a way to guide Atleti to a top four spot, even when it has looked at risk for much of the season. And just like in 2019/20, he has achieved it. It’s clear there is work to do with this squad long-term, but the objective for this season is now complete.
Signs of hope in attack
It was only after the Madrid Derby that we spoke in this very column about Atlético’s attacking struggles, and, in particular, Antoine Griezmann. This time, against Elche, Atleti began to take some of the chances they created.
The Rojiblancos created over 2 xG for the second consecutive game and look to be ending the season an on offensive high note — a much-needed bonus. Cunha scored his first goal since February and got a just reward for his recent performances, with three shots on target being his highest figure since joining Atlético in the summer. His influence and presence as Atleti’s number nine is becoming clearer by the day, and it is guaranteeing him a prominent role for next season.
Other goalscorer de Paul was also influential. He took up a more-advanced role than he has for much of the season, more akin to where he played while at Udinese. It suited him. His forward pass accuracy of 86% was his highest since October, while the 14 forward passes was also the second-highest total from his last nine appearances.
On Griezmann, this performance was a big improvement. Only 10 days ago, Jeremy Beren wrote about his display against Athletic, saying “Griezmann could not spring his strike partner loose, let alone help in any phase of the game, which is the entire reason why Simeone moved him around the tactical chessboard.” Here, he did have a clear role and was influential in providing that missing link-up play.
The obvious stat is that he provided an unselfish assist for de Paul’s goal, but this was also the first time Griezmann was involved in two goals in a single game since November, as he also provided a secondary assist for Cunha’s opener.
Reinildo allowing Atleti to adapt
Šime Vrsaljko’s injury only six minutes into this game had potential to throw Atlético’s plan right out the window in the early stages. It was a disruption that caused a change in formation, as Simeone preferred to bring on Renan Lodi for the Croatian, rather than third-choice right-back Daniel Wass.
Fortunately, the coach could do that thanks to Reinildo Mandava.
The value the Mozambique international has brought to the club since he joined in January has been immeasurable, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to question whether Champions League qualification would have been possible — let alone guaranteeing it with two games to spare — had it been Mario Hermoso starting in his place.
This time, at Elche, Reinildo’s versatility meant that he started the game as a left-back and could then rapidly transition into a left-sided central defender in a back three. His rapport and understanding with fellow Portuguese-speaker Lodi helped make this change seamless within the Atlético system.
With seven defensive duels and a 71 percent success rate in winning them, Reinildo was Atleti’s most active, and most successful, defender over the 90 minutes against Elche. What’s more, he won three out of four aerial duels, and looked commanding and imposing at the back. While he may lack the physical presence of Stefan Savić or José Maria Giménez, he has made his dominance clear through quality.
Yet, Reinildo was also an important outlet on the ball. Three of Atlético’s six most-frequent passing combinations involved Reinildo, linking up with Giménez, Koke and Lodi regularly. He was the man to lead playing the ball out from the back.