Atletico Madrid’s tactics are centered on the opponent making a mistake. The problem is this works both ways. The margins are so fine, the tension so high that one slip, one sliced clearance and it’s game over.
That’s what happened on Sunday night, as Atético lost their home opener for the first time in 16 years to a clinical, well-coached Villarreal side.
Diego Simeone has played Unai Emery 20 times now, and Sunday night was the first time the Argentine has tasted defeat. There have been some close calls in those 19 encounters prior to Sunday, with 11 draws amongst the results. But it was a Nahuel Molina failed clearance that paved the way for Yeremy Pino to score the 73rd-minute opener that decided the game and hand Emery all three points. Gerard Moreno scored late on too, as Atlético pushed forward.
For long spells in the first half, Atlético let goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli stand with his foot on the ball in possession, assessing the field in front of him and waiting for someone to make a move. Atlético were never going to force the issue, because that would mean being left with a numerical disadvantage in their half of the field.
Instead, it was five Atlético players versus six Villarreal players, and sometimes four versus seven. The outnumbered rojiblancos had to work hard to try to provoke an error or pounce on a lapse of concentration. The gaps between the Atlético players made it easy for Villarreal to keep the ball and circulate it until an opening appeared.
Emery’s players spread out wide, with good depth, during their build-up. Villarreal are a finely-coached team, technically excellent on the ball, so they were rarely bothered by Atlético’s pressing structure — always a spare man or the option to launch if all else failed.
Below is a situation Atlético should have control over, but Koke and Yannick Carrasco are sitting so deep, trying to prevent the pass to Moreno and Pino that they leave Etienne Capoue (and Juan Foyth) with a mountain of space to drive into.
Below is how that play ended up. Atlético were in a two-on-four situation with Koke, Carrasco and Stefan Savić chasing the play. Marcos Llorente is trying to grab a handful of Giovani Lo Celso’s jersey to stop the break. The mistakes weren’t always this glaring. but with Lo Celso’s ability to break lines and Pino out wide with Nico Jackson, Villarreal were well-balanced and dangerous.
Simeone isn’t a big gambler, but if he had a gambler’s mentality, he would understand that in order to win, you have to place bets with positive value. The bets he is making are small and seemingly inconsequential. He’ll still end up going broke, but in a slower and more-painful way.
Moving away from the tactical side of the game, one of the more worrying things is that this performance came in the first game at home all season. The first home game after a thoroughly disappointing campaign last year.
There was surely collective and individual hurt after last season, wrongs to be righted and pride to be restored. Instead, Atlético sat and waited like a newly-promoted team just glad to be taking part. A draw for Villarreal would have been a good result, so the Yellow Submarine were in no hurry.
Atlético’s problems with triggering a cohesive press and once-and-for-all evolving Cholismo now look even more prominent against opposition such as Villarreal. Against Barcelona and Real Madrid, Atlético are not expected to dominate the ball. Against the more-defensive sides in the league, they are. Problem solved, and there’s not much thought that goes into it.
It’s when Atlético have to force the issue against teams they’re expected to beat — such as Villarreal, Celta Vigo, Real Betis and Real Sociedad — where they lose their identity.
This is a story as old as time: Diego Simeone’s tactics appear risk-averse, but by not injecting some chaos into the system, his style is having the opposite effect as its intention. It invites pressure. And in the meantime, the very best players on his team become frustrated with no cutting-edge ball into dangerous positions. Opposition managers learn that by dominating possession, you can draw Atlético out, play through them and cause problems, without the risk of Simeone’s press causing too many problems.
Instead of fixing their inability to defend in transition through better strategy or signing better players, Cholo and Atlético are just trying to avoid transitions completely. Instead of learning better ways to hurt the opposition, they just continue to rely on moments of magic from someone, somewhere. And they’re stuck in this state.