Atlético Madrid brought a disappointing 2021/22 campaign to a close with an impressive 2-1 win over Real Sociedad at Reale Arena, inflicting revenge for the convincing 2-0 defeat suffered at the same stadium in the Copa del Rey earlier this year.
Almost a dead rubber, the result secured third place for Atleti for the 10th consecutive season with Diego Simeone in charge, compared to 16 seasons without a top-three finish before his appointment.
Rodrigo de Paul and Ángel Correa were the two on the scoresheet with equally-impressive efforts, De Paul from distance and Correa with a curling shot, before Jon Guridi scored a consolation goal for Real Sociedad deep into injury time.
Here are three things we learned from the tie.
Diego Simeone’s half-time team-talks are good
There was a night-and-day difference between Atleti in the first half and Atleti in the second half on Sunday. Neither represented a particularly-stellar performance from the men in pink and navy blue, but the second period showed a marked improvement.
The first half saw 0.98 xG from Real Sociedad and a big fat 0 from Atlético. La Real cut through Atleti’s midfield easily and had nothing blocking them. Felipe looked a little more nervous, later settling and growing into the game, and Atleti looked vulnerable. In truth, a team with more clinical forwards could have been two or three goals up by half-time.
In attack, Atleti looked disjointed. Antoine Griezmann was dropping too deep and Matheus Cunha was struggling to find space in attack, all while the two wing-backs were pinned back.
After the break, Atleti played with much-greater intensity. Even in the first minute, Cunha hit the woodwork with the kind of daring effort that looked as though Simeone had lit off a rocket in the dressing room at half-time.
Among those unleashed was de Paul (more on him later), as Geoffrey Kondogbia sat deeper, giving the Argentine more freedom to roam forward, provide support, and link up with Griezmann. With Correa and Thomas Lemar introduced shortly after, there was a buzz and pace to the Atleti attack the Real Sociedad defence could not match.
Much like Atlético’s season, this game included desperately-poor spells which contrasted with mightily-impressive periods. In the end, Atlético did enough to get the win, thanks in large part to the second half improvement.
Rodrigo de Paul will be crucial next season
It’s taken a full season, but the last couple weeks have finally shown what everyone was expecting from the Argentina international.
Even in the first half on Sunday, de Paul was shackled by his defensive duties, breaking up play alongside Kondogbia. But in the second half, he moved into a more offensive position and excelled.
In the same advanced playmaker role he fulfilled against Elche, de Paul looked lethal every time the ball came through to him. His vision with through balls continues to be more threatening than from deep, and unleashes a world of opportunities with Atleti’s offensive wing-backs.
With Cunha and then Correa bringing pace, Atleti were able to do something that few sides have done this season — pull La Real’s defence all over the place to open up spaces. De Paul could move forward and pick out passes, or run through them to take on opportunities himself.
Sunday was only the second time Rodrigo de Paul registered two shots on target in the same match since joining Atlético shirt, and he was at his most potent in the attacking third. The 51st-minute goal he scored stands as one of the season’s best strikes from distance.
Simeone finally seems to have found a way to unleash de Paul’s offensive potential and the importance of the role that he could have next season. This role is an intriguing innovation into the Simeone system, and one that could bring out impressive results if deployed consistently.
Atleti have long spoken about the need for a number 10 playmaker in midfield and this transition for de Paul could well be the solution. It would give him a huge importance within the squad and more than justify his transfer fee last summer.
A vote of no confidence from Simeone
Perhaps of equal note as those who played well are those who didn’t play at all.
Atlético ended the tie at Reale Arena with six unused subs, with Simeone opting not to use two available substitutions.
Left on the bench was José Maria Giménez, a surprise absence in the line-up, but one most-probably reflecting the injury struggles that have, once again, plagued him in recent months. The Uruguayan has played through the pain repeatedly, domestically and in Europe, and Simeone clearly didn’t feel the need to push him.
The other five all face an uncertain future. First up, goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte has spent 12 months warming the bench and has been a crucial member of the squad off the field, but has contributed nothing on it. We will soon see if his loan from Monaco is extended, but it seems unlikely.
Slightly more influential (but not much) is Daniel Wass, and his 45 minutes in an Atlético shirt since he joined the club in January. Rumours are circulating that Wass could be moving on to return to Denmark, as had been suggested early on in the campaign while he was still at Valencia. Since that famous sideline clash and injury in February, Simeone hasn’t counted on Wass’ services as anything more than a third-choice right-back.
That leaves four more. Héctor Herrera has already sealed an exit to the Houston Dynamo, and even substitute Luis Suárez, who did get a few minutes at the end, will leave for a still-unknown destination.
Renan Lodi and Mario Hermoso are the two players with the most uncertainty amid Premier League interest. Since Reinildo Mandava joined in January, Hermoso has made just two starts in 20 games, while Lodi’s reinvention as a winger was short-lived and Simeone remains unconvinced. The right offers from England could see both depart.