Atlético Madrid’s two-game winning streak was halted Tuesday night, as two goals inside the final six minutes lifted Bayer Leverkusen to a surprise victory in matchday two of Champions League group stage action.
Due to a number of injuries to key players, Diego Simeone named an experimental 11 that included sparingly-used central defenders Mario Hermoso and Felipe Monteiro (making his first appearance since May) and featured Reinildo Mandava in an unfamiliar wing-back position. The midfield trio of Koke, Saúl, and Marcos Llorente lacked balance and creativity, while João Félix was isolated and left to fend for himself up top.
Let’s pore over four key figures that defined Tuesday’s horrorshow.
The number of wins Atlético have notched from the past 10 games in which Hermoso and Felipe both started.
❌ +— Atlético Stats (@atletico_stats_) September 13, 2022
El Atleti ganó en UNO de los últimos diez partidos en los que Felipe y Hermoso fueron titulares:
1V 3E y 6D y 16 goles en contra... pic.twitter.com/1bRy6tqfqs
What more needs to be said? Atlético simply do not play well when these two players are in the heart of defense.
Atlético have had a glaring need to address in central defense for more than two years —since the team lost form in spring 2021 before rallying to win the title on the final day. Simeone has reconverted Reinildo and Axel Witsel into superb defenders — but since the club has been unwilling to put forth “one euro” to add more quality to a defense that leaked 40-plus goals last year, the coach continues to lean heavily on the oft-injured José Giménez-Stefan Savić pairing.
With both unavailable for the trip to Germany, Simeone decided to move Reinildo to left wing-back as part of the plan to compensate. This inexplicable decision, combined with the choice to keep Geoffrey Kondogbia glued to the bench, ruined the balance Atlético found in Saturday’s win over Celta Vigo and stunted the team’s attack — which finished Tuesday with only three shots on target.
Hermoso in particular had a mighty tough time. He completed a game-high nine passes into the final third, but his inability to defend his position directly contributed to both Leverkusen goals. Watch him fall hook, line, and sinker for the one-two between Callum Hudson-Odoi and Jeremie Frimpong before getting outmuscled in the buildup to Robert Andrich’s opener:
Then, after Rodrigo de Paul played an errant pass, Hermoso fell over in the center circle after attempting an ill-advised slide tackle on Hudson-Odoi. This play ended with the Englishman notching a hockey assist for Moussa Diaby on the left:
The refereeing controversy in the first half has, perhaps rightfully, taken post-game headlines. But again, Atlético played poorly enough to where bad refereeing could actively influence the game in Germany. To me, the galling lack of defensive consistency and security is a much bigger story.
The length in minutes of João Félix’s goal drought. This stretch encompasses the final four games João played in 2021/22 and the first seven games this season.
Can you imagine how frustrated this guy must be? When he’s not on the floor getting fouled (five more times on Tuesday), João is twisting in the wind and feeding off scraps. Álvaro Morata, his primary strike partner this season, has scored one goal in the past six games and could not register a shot on target in 72 minutes at BayArena.
Spain international Morata looks an unreliable running mate for João, who should be this team’s attacking star. Instead, the Portuguese has neither scored nor assisted a goal since Aug. 15 — the season’s opening game. Per FBRef, he has only four shots on target and just two goal-creating actions since the hat-trick of assists at Getafe. He registered a season-best six progressive carries Tuesday night, but the 22-year-old’s only shot on goal was a long-range effort Lukáš Hrádecký parried away.
This dude is so good when he’s not getting fouled all the damn time. https://t.co/zeXDCYU3Ou— Into the Calderón (@intothecalderon) September 14, 2022
Though João has started six of seven games thus far, he’s completed the full 90 minutes only once. To his great credit, he’s made himself an undisputed starter, and a hard-working forward in the Cholismo mold. But he lives to score, especially in the Champions League, and Atlético’s lack of cutting edge or creativity between the lines (especially with Thomas Lemar injured and Antoine Griezmann on a minutes restriction) inhibits any opportunity to build an attack for João and keep him from getting cut down 40 yards from where he can do damage.
The number of Champions League games (out of 21) that Atlético have won since eliminating Liverpool from the competition in March 2020.
As one might have expected, the Rojiblancos have complicated matters in Group B. According to FiveThirtyEight, Club Brugge now have the best chance to win the group, and Atleti’s chance to qualify for the round of 16 has dipped to 60 percent.
The upcoming doubleheader with Brugge following the international break will be decisive. If Simeone’s men take both games, they will probably go on to win the group. Failure to do so by continuing to play down to the opposition could mean Atlético are looking at a fourth straight season where progression to the knockouts hinges on matchday six results.
Antoine Griezmann’s total touches, in only 28 minutes played.
Atlético improved instantly when Griezmann trotted out for his now-standard 62nd-minute appearance, though said improvement didn’t last. The France star completed almost as many passes into the penalty area (7) as Bayer Leverkusen’s entire team (8). He was involved in arguably Atleti’s best chance of the evening, combining with João Félix to craft a shot for De Paul to try and open the scoring.
“When Griezmann is on the field, the team plays better,” Simeone said after Tuesday’s game.
It is clear that the ongoing contractual standoff over how many minutes Griezmann should play is hurting the team and its coach — not to mention the player himself, who appears sharper now than at any point in the last year.
Reports in France and Spain have indicated that Atlético and Barcelona are close to an agreement to reduce Griezmann’s buy obligation from €40 million to around €25 million. The sooner this agreement is struck, the better it will be for everyone.