Atlético Madrid have once again disappointed, this time courtesy of an away draw against Almería that looks almost certain to come back to haunt them come the end of the season.
Ángel Correa gifted the visitors a first-half lead after a magnificent dummy from Antoine Griezmann, but El Bilal Touré pulled away at the far post 20 minutes later to equalise and Atleti could not find another way through.
28 - Atlético de Madrid have won 28 points after 17 games in LaLigathis season. This is their lowest points tally at this stage of the competition under Diego Simeone in a full season and their worst tally since 20 points in 2011/12. Difficulties. pic.twitter.com/80oHEdxPuZ— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 15, 2023
The analysis here will see what we can take from this game, which was at times an almost comically-poor performance.
The best squad in Atleti history? Seriously?
“The squad doesn’t need much. We have a well balanced squad.”
That was Atleti’s team manager Tomás Reñones in a pre-match interview on Sunday as he was asked if the club were looking to add to the team this month.
For quite some time, Diego Simeone has been subject to criticism for not doing better with “the best squad in the history of Atlético de Madrid.” It takes only one look at the team put out in Almería to know that, even if it was once true, it certainly isn’t today.
The departures in attack mean that Simeone has only three forwards available: Antoine Griezmann, Álvaro Morata and Ángel Correa. These are three good options, but far from strength in depth. In midfield, Thomas Lemar continues to fail to live up to expectations, Geoffrey Kondogbia remains inconsistent and Koke looks like a shadow of the player he once was.
But the real issue comes in defence.
Axel Witsel’s discomfort playing as a central defender becomes clearer with every appearance. On Sunday, he looked just as awkward on the ball as he did with his positioning. Where in the past he has taken a leadership role, this time the 34-year-old looked the most lost, and he continually failed in his defensive responsibilities.
Nahuel Molina did his best in a position which is very clearly not his own (right centre-back), but at one point the Atlético defence had three players playing out of position in their back four. The marking flaws often came down his side.
As Atleti looked to chase and win the game in the second half, Simeone turned to the bench. What a depressing sight that must have been for El Cholo as he span round to see what options he had.
Pablo Barrios has barely trained for a few days but was thrown in at half-time because it would have been hard to be worse than Koke. Sergio Reguilón came on to get himself sent off for two yellow cards, learning from the Mario Hermoso playbook. Álvaro Morata missed a golden chance, and then another. Felipe and Saúl came on to count down their final minutes in Atleti shirts.
This will be a long month, but having sold Matheus Cunha and with João Félix off the books, there should be room for Atlético to manoeuvre in the budget. It’s time for the club to put the money where their mouth is and invest — or it could end up being very costly come season’s end.
Simeone’s change was the wrong one
There were two turning points in this match: Geoffrey Kondogbia‘s inexplicable Kamikaze-style decision to wallop Marcos Llorente’s goal-bound effort into the roof of the net from an offside position, and Cholo Simeone opting to change the team’s shape on 30 minutes.
Thousands of words of analysis wouldn’t help anybody to understand what was going through Kondogbia’s head, so instead we’ll look at what went wrong with the tactical intervention.
Having set up in a 4-4-2 shape in the early stages, Atlético opted to revert to a back three, with Molina dropping inside and Marcos Llorente switching to the right-wing-back role. Witsel held the central role in a back three with Hermoso on the left and Reinildo as the left-wing-back, moving Lemar into a more central role.
The move was designed to give Atleti a way of playing out from the back. In the game’s opening exchanges, the build-up play had been slow, nervy, and imprecise, especially when Rubi’s Almería pressed high.
But rather than giving Atleti better circulation from deep, the tactical shakeup invited all of their ball possession to come deep in their own half. It invited more pressure from Almería.
...— Atlético Stats (@atletico_stats_) January 15, 2023
Este es el mapa de calor de acciones con balón del Atleti tras el gol de Correa. Se explica solo...
Solo TRES remates y 0.6xG desde el 0-1. pic.twitter.com/pFMIq18Fpa
As the above heat map from Atlético Stats shows, Atlético simply could not get the ball out of their own half. Almería were all over Atleti and found it easy to cut off the outlets the Rojiblancos were looking to use down the flanks, and there was no target man number nine to find via long balls.
The flaw in marking between Molina and Witsel has already been mentioned, but again reflected a lack of planning that saw three players in a back three with none assuming responsibilities. Equally, Reinildo struggled on the left. He is clearly more comfortable as a left-central defender, rather than as a left-wing-back. Simeone screamed at him to push forward, but it was clearly a role that didn’t suit. That limited the potential Atleti had to threaten from the left.
This tactical shift looked poorly thought-out, and it was woefully executed. With so few options, it’s hard to blame Simeone, but it is clear that the decision to change this raised more questions than answers.
In attack, there was one positive
We don’t want to be all doom and gloom, even after dropping two points away at a team fighting relegation.
As the saying goes, you should worry about a striker when they aren’t getting chances. Atlético are generating chances. Álvaro Morata had the golden opportunity as he raced through, recording 0.41 xG with an effort that was far too close to Almería goalkeeper Fernando Martínez. Ángel Correa too put his shot from close distance, fed by Griezmann, straight at the shotstopper.
In the end, Atlético had 1.17 xG compared to Almería’s 0.42, and more than enough opportunities to win the game. LaLiga’s in-game technology gave Morata’s chance a 55% probability of scoring. Fernando was on form in the Almería goal, but the Colchoneros’ finishing left much to be desired.
Particularly impressive was the link-up between Griezmann and Correa. This was Correa’s first start since before the World Cup, and he connected well with his fellow World Cup winner. Correa’s movement pulled the Almería defence all over the place and opened up chances not just for him, but also for Griezmann and even the likes of Llorente arriving from deep.
Morata’s introduction in a more-fixed number nine role gave Almería problems, as they struggled to handle him as well as the wide runners. In an offensive sense, this system, driven by Griezmann, in this game, was only a failure in the fact that strikers could not finish.
Instead, moments of stupidity decided the contest. Three avoidable moments cost Atleti dearly: Kondogbia’s interaction, Simeone’s tactical change, and Reguilón’s two yellow cards in four minutes. If the Atlético forwards had been able to finish their chances, not one of those moments would have mattered.