Atlético Madrid missed a chance to make it back-to-back Champions League wins after falling to defeat with two late goals from Bayer Leverkusen, giving the home team the victory in a controversial meeting.
Refereeing decisions stole the headlines, but Atlético left much to be desired as Robert Andrich and then Moussa Diaby waltzed through the Spaniards’ defence to score past Ivo Grbić in the closing stages.
Here are three things we learned from the game.
VAR robbed Atleti
Before we can get stuck into any kind of analysis or discussion about this game, we have to face up to the obvious:
This was a robbery.
The fact that referee Michael Oliver and his VAR team missed the most blatant of all handballs from Edmond Tapsoba is simply incomprehensible.
It is unfathomable that Oliver was not even directed to rewatch the incident, let alone to consider not giving it. As the ball bounced and Tapsoba’s arm, even the most casual observer could see that the defender’s arm was in an unnatural position and had contact with the ball.
Meanwhile in Leverkusen, Atleti are OUTRAGED they weren't given a penalty for this pretty clear handball. As they say is Spain "is penalty like a cathedral". Not given. 0-0 at half time. https://t.co/cBBoAj40T0— The Spanish Football Podcast (@tsf_podcast) September 13, 2022
Refereeing experts rushed to say the only possible explanation would be that VAR officials decided Tapsoba’s arm was in a natural position and that the contact was involuntary. But it’s hard to believe that a professional referee could possibly come to that conclusion.
At that stage of the game — midway through the first half — Atleti were on top and the scoreline was still 0-0. A goal from a spot kick there changes the complexion of the tie completely, allowing Diego Simeone’s men to sit deeper and put pressure on the Germans to create, something they failed to do for much of the encounter.
Luck hasn’t been on Atleti’s side when it comes to refereeing decisions very often this season, but this call was perhaps the toughest to take yet.
Hermoso and Felipe can’t be starters
A sense of dread swept through any and every Atlético fan as they looked at the team sheet and saw that Jan Oblak was unavailable, and that Mario Hermoso and Felipe Monteiro would be starting in defence.
In this case, it was Hermoso who decided to stand out as the spectacularly poor version of the two. Bayer Leverkusen continually looked to the left flank to target Atleti, as Hermoso was easily pushed off the ball, positionally unaware, and won just 41% of his duels. Were it not for Reinildo and Axel Witsel covering, it could have been even worse.
Felipe produced one of his best performances in some time, but that is less of an impressive feat when you remember the bar was set at amateur level. He ranked third for possession losses with eight, with two coming inside his own penalty area and six coming inside his own half.
It wasn’t just in defence that the pair were all over the shop. The two had one chance each which they should have scored, with Hermoso’s 0.52xG miss after the handball incident costing the team dearly. Shortly after, Felipe had his own chance just outside the six-yard box after a quick free-kick routine, but he skewed the ball high and wide on a chance worth 0.46 xG.
Seven games into the season, Simeone has not yet been able to rely upon his first-choice defenders Josema Giménez and Stefan Savić. Their injury struggles and disciplinary records mean it is a far-too-rare occurrence. Atleti desperately need quality cover for when they are not available.
Hermoso and Felipe have won just one of their last 10 games started together, a dismal record that shows the negative impact they have. Reinildo’s arrival has helped, but another solid defender is crucial.
Inconsistency makes the difference
There may not have been a big difference between the first 80 minutes against Porto last week and the first 80 minutes of the game Tuesday night. In both, Atlético had chances that weren’t taken, and the opposition failed to create much threat.
Atleti have looked fluid and clinical at times this season, but it is all too rare. There are few trends in the team, as can be seen in that last week’s match saw Atleti grow and improve in the final minutes as they pushed forward, whereas here they looked defensively vulnerable and inevitably conceded twice in minutes 84 and 86.
There’s no better example of these problems in fluidity than Álvaro Morata. It’s understandable that a striker, any striker, can miss chances and have an off day in front of goal. But what was strange about this display from Morata was not that he missed chances, but rather that he wasn’t putting himself in a position to have chances.
For a third consecutive game, the centre forward failed to register a single attempt on goal, despite Atleti registering an attacking move every three minutes against Bayer Leverkusen — a more-frequent rate than the season average of one every three minutes, 42 seconds. With the number of crosses at 17, the second-highest register so far this season, Morata was simply positioned far too deep too often, drifting and then finding himself too deep at the far post when he arrived into the box.
This team is lightyears away from the Simeone teams of old that you knew you could rely on. They may not have gotten the most spectacular results, but you knew they would be able to grind out a win when needed. This team simply cannot do the grinding-out and grafting needed to stay solid and consistent in defence and secure points on the road in Europe.
That much has changed is clear, but Simeone still doesn’t seem to have found the solution.