In Sunday’s battle for third place, Atlético Madrid missed an opportunity to seal the spot with one game to spare as Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla held them to a 1-1 draw at the Wanda Metropolitano.
José Maria Giménez gave Atlético the lead with a header from a corner, but Youssef En-Nesyri escaped his marker to send a free header beyond Jan Oblak to equalise in the game’s closing stages.
Here are three things we learned from the encounter:
Simeone’s going nowhere
“There’s nothing to say. I’m going to continue with Atlético Madrid,” Diego Simeone told the press after the final whistle.
It was as simple as that to put the debate to bed after one of Simeone’s most challenging campaigns in charge at Atleti. With top four secured, it had seemed unlikely that Cholo would opt to call it a day, but he faced greater pressure than ever before. Seemingly not on the same page as Andrea Berta and unsure of the style or approach in a number of games, there were doubts about Simeone’s future for the first time.
Now, it’s clear.
In this tie, the season’s final home game, it was evident that more than one player was saying their farewell to the Metropolitano. Luis Suárez and Héctor Herrera said their goodbyes in style, with full presentations and receptions from the home fans. Their exits are already decided upon, but others face a less certain future.
Felipe and Šime Vrsaljko’s contracts both expire in the summer, and are presumably in talks to continue at the club given the lack of a farewell for them. Benjamin Lecomte is yet to make his debut but his loan deal expires in the summer. Then there are others like Daniel Wass, Yannick Carrasco, Mario Hermoso and Antoine Griezmann, who have all seen doubts emerge about their future.
Simeone’s stance is clear, and Atleti can already count upon their coach for next season. But it’s evident there will be plenty of changes in the playing staff ahead of a return to the stadium in August.
The return of “set piece Atleti”?
With nine goals from set pieces this season, Atlético’s figures are akin to those of bottom-half Espanyol and only one more than already-relegated Alavés. It’s a far cry from the glory days of 2013/14 for example, when much of the team’s success came from their potent aerial threat, with the likes of João Miranda and Diego Godín lethal at set pieces.
Here, José Giménez scored his first goal this season, the sixth of the campaign from a defender. It was his first goal since November 2020, his first in LaLiga since August 2017 and his first at the Wanda Metropolitano in LaLiga.
The routine for his goal was a smart one, as Atleti overloaded the central area of the penalty box and then saw Giménez escape to skip ahead of the crowd and flick a header on from the near post. It was a combination of an intelligent routine and a good delivery by Yannick Carrasco, two things which have rarely coincided this season.
Atleti looked a threat throughout at set pieces against Sevilla, which is unusual given that Sevilla rank among the fewest goals conceded from set pieces this season while they actually have the highest number of goals scored in such situations with 16.
It’s a positive sign, even at this late stage of the season, that we are seeing such routines. Perhaps with the pressure off, Simeone and his coaching staff are switching focus to different areas to get more out of these kinds of situations, which the coach knows only too well can make a real difference.
Hope for Rodrigo de Paul
Another reason to be optimistic was Rodrigo de Paul’s performance on Sunday.
The midfielder has struggled to settle in and find his place in his first season at the club, and it has come across as if Simeone himself isn’t quite sure of how to fit him into the Atleti system. It’s evident that de Paul has several characteristics that Simeone likes, with his vision, tenacity and ability to transition, but he hasn’t yet found the role to exploit those qualities.
Against Elche and again when facing Sevilla, de Paul has been deployed in a more offensive role, offering him more attacking license to roam with fewer defensive responsibilities. It’s put him in a more-advanced position to thread through passes and to engage in play quickly with shorter passes, rather than the long balls we have seen from him in deep positions this season.
The immediate impact is clear. Over these past two games, he has averaged a 71% success rate across total actions, a figure which he had not achieved in a single game since November.
In particular, you could see de Paul was taking more risks in more advanced positions. The Argentina international was able to enjoy himself more and look to play risky through balls which he simply can’t afford to do when positioned deeper in the field.
De Paul has also been effective in defending from the front. His duels have logically reduced, from an average of 20 per 90 to an average of 9 per 90, but his success rate has soared from a season average of 46% to 72% across these two games. By pressing higher and farther up against defenders, rather than being stationary or backtracking against opposition attackers, he has looked more reliable in the tackle.
It’s taken almost a full season, but Simeone finally appears to have found the key to unlocking de Paul’s talents within the Atlético midfield.