Having thrashed Primera División RFEF side CD Numancia in midweek, Atlético Madrid had their first real test of pre-season as they faced up to Manchester United in Oslo on Saturday afternoon and emerged victorious.
Erik ten Hag fielded a strong line-up for the Red Devils, though Cristiano Ronaldo did not play as he was saved to feature against Rayo Vallecano on Sunday. But Atlético were up to the challenge and collected a deserved win at Ullevaal Stadion.
Early on, Marcos Llorente went closest with a cross-cum-shot in the first half, while Ángel Correa also powered a volley over the bar, but the best chance of all fell to Saúl Ñíguez as the returning loanee fired over from six yards out.
That was until João Félix arrived on the scene in the 86th minute to send a pinpoint effort into the bottom corner, frustrating the Manchester United players to the extent that Fred saw red for a second yellow card moments later.
In a game which saw the starters get 60 minutes under their belt before sweeping changes, Diego Simeone will have learned more about his players, and here are three things we took from the game in Norway.
Nahuel Molina unleashes Marcos Llorente
Playing on his debut only days after completing a summer switch from Udinese, Argentina international Nahuel Molina made a strong start to life with Atlético.
Defensively solid, he forced Anthony Martial into more central areas, and he was pivotal to linking up the defence with the midfield and attack. But most importantly of all, he served to take the shackles off of Llorente.
Ever since Kieran Trippier left the club in January, Llorente has found himself playing deeper and unable to connect with link-up play that can allow him to break through with pace, with clinical overlapping play.
With Molina, there were already signs of that.
It was a Molina run down the flank and through ball to Llorente that created Atleti’s best chance of the first half, providing the first real sign of the potential that connection has with some impressive early understanding between the two. This combination will certainly be one to keep an eye on in the weeks ahead.
Getting the best out of Llorente is an even more-important role for Molina, and one Simeone will undoubtedly prioritise. Having gone from 25 goal involvements in 2020/21 to three in 2021/22, exploiting the Spaniard’s talents, pace and skill would be welcome back in Atleti’s attacking plans.
Later on in the encounter, Molina tired and showed signs of an interrupted pre-season. Some sloppiness crept into his passing and distribution, but overall it was a pleasing debut for the new Atlético Madrid signing.
A new role for João Félix
Making his first appearance of the pre-season campaign after missing eight days of training through injury, we saw João Félix come on as a substitute on the hour mark alongside Álvaro Morata and Antoine Griezmann. At first it seemed he would join the Spaniard in a front two, but that wasn’t quite the case.
The trio created a wide front three, with João operating on the left in a freer role. Whereas Griezmann on the right stuck to wide positions and tracked back heavily, Félix was allowed to position himself higher up the pitch and have more ability to drift centrally.
Morata’s positioning, effectively on the shoulder of the last man throughout, meant that João could start wide, then pick up the ball and run at Manchester United’s central defenders. It was a tactic that unsettled Harry Maguire in particular and forced the Red Devils into fouling the Portugal international.
One move in particular saw Morata take Maguire wide, opening space for João to run into through the middle, with a pass to Griezmann running diagonally across being just a little too heavy. It was the most fluid attacking move that Atlético had produced up to that point in the game.
To put the icing on the cake, João cut inside less than five minutes from time to produce a fine finish which left David de Gea sprawling across the turf. It was the kind of clinical cutting edge that differentiates him from Morata or Griezmann to convert from 20 yards.
This was still João’s first outing of the campaign, and his fitness levels did seem to be slightly behind some of his team-mates. But he added a spark that others could not. He made things happen and his talent was clear.
Simeone knows that he has several attacking options available to him in this squad, but he also knows that it should revolve around João.
Atleti still need a central defender
When Diego Simeone made changes on the hour-mark, the only outfield player not to come off was Reinildo Mandava. Accompanying him in central defence was Axel Witsel and Daniel Wass.
Witsel looked comfortable, and actually did well to bring the ball out from the back with his distribution, his impressive vision and positioning allowing him to control the back line. Wass struggled far more, and looked like a fish out of water. If he is defensively insecure at right-wing-back, he is even worse as a right-central defender.
It almost seemed to be a message from Simeone to club president Enrique Cerezo, who only a day ago told the press that the squad was complete after Molina was officially unveiled.
Mario Hermoso was absent due to a knock picked up against Numancia, while Felipe is also unavailable due to tendinitis in his knee — he has now missed most of the team’s pre-season regime. The consequences of that on his fitness levels, which were already among the worst in the squad, could have long-term effects across the season.
Given the unfortunate injury records belonging to Josema Giménez and Stefan Savić, it’s clear that more depth in defense is needed. It seems some at the club believe Witsel to be the solution, but that cannot be the long-term answer.
But that also raises another question: Koke. For the second consecutive friendly, captain Koke was not selected in the starting line-up. That is not so much a statement of Cholo’s plans for the season ahead, but it does give a hint toward his level of fitness and the fact he has work to do.
Should Witsel return to midfield, where he has clearly impressed Simeone in pre-season, could Koke fall even further down the pecking order? He doesn’t fit the mould of the offensive central midfielder like Llorente, Rodrigo de Paul or Thomas Lemar, but neither is he a holding option like Geoffrey Kondogbia or Witsel.
Watch this space.