A tricky Monday night trip to face Gennaro Gattuso’s Valencia was probably exactly what Diego Simeone and his Atlético Madrid team did not want after defeat to Villarreal last weekend. High intensity and a lot of chasing the ball meant that Atleti struggled to dominate a tie where they had far more quality on the field, eventually getting the win only through a deflected Antoine Griezmann strike.
Atleti looked ragged as Yunus Musah scored a fine effort only to be called off by VAR in the first half, and the visitors had another slice of fortune when Griezmann’s effort changed direction midway through the air thanks to the outstretched leg of Carlos Soler.
It was another game where the Rojiblancos struggled to implement a clear game plan, and here are three more things we learned from Monday’s tie.
This wasn’t all that different to Villarreal
There were similarities and there were differences, but this game against Valencia was remarkably similar to the tie against Villarreal in that Atlético, for much of this game, were not at the races.
Atlético struggled to get into the game and had a remarkably low 26.74% possession at Mestalla, dropping as low as 19% for the final 15 minutes. Against Villarreal, the 44.79% possession figure was more impressive, but Atleti again allowed the opposition to dictate the tempo without much interruption.
Chances fell to Atleti, with Álvaro Morata and João Félix both having golden opportunities to score in the first half, but they weren’t taking them. Just as Matheus Cunha had chances fall his way at the Metropolitano the previous Sunday, they were chances that Atleti should really be finishing.
Ironically, the difference in expected goals between the two games was minimal, with Atleti racking up 1.69 against Valencia and 1.67 against Villarreal. Both of those figures are higher than the 0.98 that saw Atleti score three at Getafe on matchday one.
In the end, the Colchoneros had the stroke of luck that was missing a week previously. Whereas Yannick Carrasco’s header was clawed off the goal-line by Gerónimo Rulli by the finest of margins against Villarreal, here the ball deflected off Soler and wrong-footed Giorgi Mamardashvili to give Griezmann a goal and Atleti the lead.
Both reflected the kind of fine margins that change games and seasons.
Picking up points at Mestalla is not something which is easily done. Atleti have done it only once in the last five years — in 2020/21, when Diego Simeone’s side would go on to win the league. But Atlético have to start turning defeats and draws against direct rivals like Villarreal into wins, too.
The biggest threats come from out wide
Fielding Marcos Llorente as the right-wing-back and Saúl Ñíguez as the left-wing-back raises interesting questions. Both are naturally central midfielders and tend to show that in their play, as both drift into more central areas. Meanwhile, the likes of Nahuel Molina or Yannick Carrasco stick closer to the byline.
In this case, it meant Atlético effectively had 10 central players in the outfield on Monday. That led to a very narrow approach which damaged the game plan.
Offensively, João Félix’s movement into wide areas and Llorente’s runs down the flanks meant that it wasn’t a major issue, as they alone stretched the game with their movement.
It was more in defence that Atleti have looked too narrow. Against Getafe in matchday one, Simeone started this same back line, other than Molina playing in place of Llorente on the right. Rivals have acres of space to bomb down the flanks and progress the ball rapidly without much challenge.
Once in advanced positions, wide players are able to deliver crosses. Getafe put in 18 crosses, while Valencia surpassed that with 22. That means an average of 20 crosses per game with such a narrow set-up.
Last season, the average number of crosses coming from Atleti’s opponents was just 12.66.
Fortunately for the Colchoneros, neither team has been able to make those chances count. Valencia’s lack of an out-and-out number nine limited their threat inside the box. Atleti loanee Samuel Lino frequently cut the ball back looking for runners from midfield, but he found no-one there. Other sides Simeone’s men face may not be so forgiving.
What’s going on at left-wing-back?
As transfer speculation still circles wildly, Carrasco was benched behind Saúl again at left-wing-back, having been recalled to the line-up to play Villarreal only a week before. With Sergio Reguilón joining the club less than 24 hours later, does this now make Carrasco a third choice at wing-back?
The situation is bizarre. The decision to allow Renan Lodi to leave, as third choice in his position, appeared logical, but to bring in a replacement seems unnecessary. Does Simeone see a different role for Carrasco? Is he simply not fully fit after a disrupted pre-season? Or will we see him depart in the final hours of the transfer window?
There is little logic to benching a player of Carrasco’s quality and talent. There was a wide-ranging consensus that he was probably the team’s best performer in 2021/22, and yet he starts 2022/23 without a guaranteed place in the team, all while contract talks rumble on and Tottenham are hovering.
To be fair to Saúl, he has played well. This was another industrious performance from him at Mestalla, and it would appear he has accepted his role within the squad. The choice to replace him with Carrasco at half-time added an offensive threat and pace that Saúl (who had been booked) couldn’t offer, but showed an indecision that we don’t too often see from Simeone.
It’s clear the coach can’t make his mind up about who is his first choice in the wing-back role on the left. Reguilón may be the answer to that, but if he is, that leaves two high-profile and highly-paid stars waiting on the bench.
It’s yet another example of woeful squad management from Atlético de Madrid.