Atlético Madrid produced arguably their best 45 minutes of the season on Saturday as they blew away Pacheta’s Valladolid by scoring three times in a 10-minute period during the first half. Atlético were able to see out the lead through the rest of the tie and move back into LaLiga’s top four.
The first to break the deadlock was Álvaro Morata, cutting back and finishing on 18 minutes, followed by a cheeky flick from Antoine Griezmann five minutes later and then capped by Mario Hermoso’s impressive reaction to a loose ball in the box five minutes after that.
HIGHLIGHTS: #AtletiRealValladolid— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) January 21, 2023
A masterclass from @AntoGriezmann helps @Atleti keep the 3 points! ⚪️#LaLigaHighlights pic.twitter.com/kcrBE0AyTh
Here are three things we learned from the game ahead of Thursday’s derby against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey.
Mario Hermoso is the signing
For much of the last 18 months, Mario Hermoso has been a joke figure. When reports emerged over the holiday period that Diego Simeone wanted to bring him back into the team and give him a major role in the Atlético defence, most fans were left with more questions than answers and crying into their turrón.
After initially failing to convince anybody differently, Hermoso now seems to be growing comfortable again. Against Levante in midweek he looked assured, and against Valladolid he produced his best performance of the season. The foolish mistakes that have come to define his game, gambling in possession or diving into needless challenges, have not appeared. Instead, he looks to be taking up a leadership role in a makeshift back four.
Hermoso, Reinildo, Nahuel Molina and Axel Witsel is not even close to Simeone’s first-choice defence. But since Hermoso came into the team just before the new year, Atleti have kept four clean sheets in six games, compared to four in 11 before the break.
Of course, Hermoso’s job is not to score goals, but the fact that he did offers a real aerial threat at set pieces. His impressive flick past Jordi Masip on Saturday was his third goal of the season, overtaking the likes of Yannick Carrasco and Rodrigo de Paul for goals this campaign. His header was initially saved, but his lightning reactions got the ball across the line.
Hermoso’s distribution has also brought benefits. His playing out from the back and longer passing range helped Atlético hit transitions quicker and helped to get the ball played out from the back more efficiently. Rather than the shorter build-up favored by players like Reinildo, Hermoso tends to play longer passes that can find an outlet faster.
Since José María Giménez and Stefan Savić both unavailable again (in news that shocks nobody), Hermoso’s return to form could not have come at a better time. Everybody knows Atleti need a central defender, and they still do even with Hermoso on form, but getting him back to firing on all cylinders could make a real difference.
Competition is good
Beyond Super Mario, there was an actual signing on show on Saturday evening: Memphis Depay. However, we perhaps saw the biggest positive impact of his arrival before he even took to the field as Morata produced one of his best performances of the season and was a key factor in an inspiring first 45 minutes.
To start, Morata notched his second goal in as many games, scoring in consecutive matches for Atlético for the first time since July 2020, and the first time in club football since March 2022. It was a well-taken and composed finish, showing a calmness in the box to cut back and place the ball beyond Masip, unlike an early chance where Morata had rashly fired the ball into the side netting.
Morata’s confidence was also reflected in his dribbling. He attempted seven dribbles in total, completing five, which is his highest return for club or country since December 2021. He wasn’t afraid to pick up the ball and run at defenders, and it worked.
Morata got himself into good positions and created chances beyond his goals, too. His 0.97 xG was his highest expected goal tally in a LaLiga match since, again, July 2020. The Spain international’s movement, more than his physicality, created gaps in the Valladolid defence and Antoine Griezmann and co. were only too happy to find him.
The other player who deserves great credit is Griezmann. There’s no need to go into depth on quite how good he was against Valladolid, as this was simply the next level of what we have already seen from the Frenchman all season.
The vision, creativity and confidence to flick the ball on, as he did both for his goal and the assist for Morata’s goal, show that he is a differential player for Cholo Simeone. He continues to be on a completely different level to the rest of the squad.
On Memphis himself, we saw a man who looked rusty above all. He hasn’t completed 90 minutes since a UEFA Nations League friendly in June, and his last 90 minutes at club level was on May 1st. After six months of cameos and bit-part appearances, we couldn’t expect him to hit the ground running.
But the Dutchman showed moments of quality and technique, not being afraid to dominate the ball and take control in the final third in Griezmann’s absence after he was susbstituted. He generated chances and looked a threat. His defensive work was a little slack and he looked a little off the pace, but all of that will come with fitness and game time.
The badge does matter
Anyone at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano may have noticed that this win felt a bit different to usual. The stadium had a strange atmosphere and was a little more quiet, dispersed, than it would regularly be.
The Frente Atlético supporters’ group, subject to much criticism already this season, were on a “supporting strike” in the Fondo Sur behind the goal. It came after the club opted to refuse to discuss a possible return to the old club budge in the recent meeting of the Socios’ Commission. So in response, the supporters’ group decided to refuse to cheer on the team in the usual way, with microphones and loud ongoing chants throughout the game, in protest of that decision. They claim that they will continue to do so until the topic is discussed.
La cara de #Simeone cuando veía que el Frente no animaba. pic.twitter.com/v1hAnPuOpA— TODOATLETI (@Todo_atleti) January 21, 2023
That wasn’t to say they didn’t chant at all. One rendition of “whoever doesn’t jump is Madridista” proved too hard for the hardened Colchoneros to resist and stay still for. That was obliged to be followed up by chants of “Gil, *******, get out of the Calderón,” “tell him to leave,” and “don’t touch the badge.”
Many of those chants, coming just after Atlético’s third goal, were met by whistles and boos from some areas of the stadium. They were unhappy that the Frente would opt to protest while the game was taking place, claiming it would disrupt the team.
It’s not new that Atlético’s fanbase is an incredibly divided one at present. Among the most heated issues is the club’s logo, which was rumoured to go to a referendum among socios. Yet again, the club have fumbled an opportunity to bring fans together and instead divided them further.
That, added into a transfer window where the club have brought in €61 million while spending €3 million, is what is causing frustration and tension. If results can’t come on the pitch, it can be understood by fans. But when issues off the field start to turn ugly too, it tests the patience of some fans just too much.