Atlético Madrid sealed a crucial away victory on Sunday, overcoming Osasuna 1-0 at El Sadar and picking up a significant three points in their battle to stay in LaLiga’s top four.
The win came courtesy of a rare Saúl Ñíguez goal, as the substitute provided the finishing touch to a fine team move that started deep in Atlético’s own half. Saúl’s perfectly-timed run and composed finish helped to exploit Osasuna’s rarely-seen cracks and deliver Atleti’s 10th league win of the year.
Here, we analyse three points we can take away from this game, beyond the ones added to Atleti’s tally in LaLiga.
Simeone’s faith pays off
If there was one man who could feel vindicated after this win, it was Diego Simeone.
He watched on as his team secured a 1-0 win on a tricky away trip, with great spirit, just days after the club united following controversial refereeing at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. This was a reminder of the team spirit of better times, and a show of why Simeone remains the right man for the job.
The winning goal was the perfect summary of why Simeone’s decision-making really should not be questioned. It all started 90 yards from Aitor Fernández in the Osasuna net. Mario Hermoso played the ball across the backline — exactly why Simeone brought Hermoso back into the side, initially at the expense of Reinildo in the same role. El Cholo wanted to have a more direct outlet in that position. It’s hard to imagine Reinildo would have made that same pass in the same situation.
And on top of that, there was a clean sheet, a shutout that came with Simeone’s big bet, Nahuel Molina, shining at right back. El Cholo also made a statement of faith in José María Giménez by bringing him back into the side as he stared down a FIFA suspension. Three of his back four have faced strong criticism at times in recent weeks, but he has stood by them.
In midfield, Rodrigo de Paul has proved critics wrong and produced arguably his best appearance yet in an Atléticpo shirt. It was Simeone who pursued him, and Simeone who has brought him back into the team despite fans’ whistles.
Osasuna are certainly no pushovers. This is a team that has consistently flirted with European football and who have been difficult to beat for a couple years, particularly at El Sadar. Without an away win in LaLiga since October, it would have been easy for Simeone to avoid any major changes and to stick with his guns for this difficult journey, but he stuck to his beliefs and it came off.
Do Atleti need depth?
The danger of that previous point is that it shows Simeone is once again achieving the impossible and getting more out of his players than their quality would naturally suggest. His substitutes had to change the game. Saúl came on to score the winning goal and Álvaro Morata held the ball up well at times. These were not players who sparked the game into action, but rather players who fed into what Atlético were trying to do and made it work.
4 - @saulniguez has scored his fourth goal after being subbed on in his league career in Europe, all for @atletienglish ⚪️ in @LaLigaEn. He ended a 35 games run without scoring in the competition. Saviour. pic.twitter.com/MqLbTVyEvs— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 29, 2023
Too often this season, we’ve seen Simeone’s subs change games for the worse. At times, that’s been because Simeone has made poor tactical calls, and that’s on the coach. But at others, it has been a matter of Simeone bringing in players who have the potential to make an impact, but simply don’t.
Now, through rotation in attack and players fighting for places all over the pitch, it looks as though those coming off the bench do have what it takes.
But we have to look beyond that. Of Sunday’s unused substitutes, Simeone had a second-choice goalkeeper, a 33-year-old defender who all but retired two years ago, two B-team players, a loanee who has played a handful of minutes all season, and a new signing who hasn’t completed 90 minutes this season. Depth is clearly an issue.
However, the difference now is that the reserve options are beginning to perform. De Paul is finding form. Thomas Lemar is nailing down a spot in the team. Hermoso has become one of the first names on the team sheet. Saúl is making an impact off the bench. For some it’s more consistent than others, but at least for those first three, match-winning performances were almost unthinkable for much of the first half of the season.
With hours left in the January transfer window, it seems highly unlikely that Atlético will add to their squad any further. Simeone will have to make do with what he has. But that’s exactly what he did in Pamplona on Sunday.
Jan Oblak’s value is clear for all to see
It can be easy to forget quite what a talent Atlético de Madrid have between the sticks. Jan Oblak is not simply an Atlético legend, but he continues to be the very core of this team’s spine and win points for the Colchoneros almost single-handedly.
At times Oblak will make sloppy mistakes, a part of his game that simply didn’t exist only a few years ago. Even so, he is still one of the best in the world in his position. And that’s not something Atlético can say all too often.
There is much more to be said about the likes of de Paul or Saúl and controversial figures who fans haven’t been able to rely upon, but in Oblak, they have a figure who is almost taken for granted given his contribution. To be clear, there is no shortage of affection toward him. But moments like his late save to deny a spinning effort from Jon Moncayola show why he’s so crucial to the Colchoneros.
Speculation continues to circle regarding Oblak’s future, and whether he himself wants to remain at the club. But performances like this one serve as a reminder to Atlético fans of just what they could be missing out on if this summer really is the one when he moves on.
Atleti’s goals conceded compared to xG shows a gap of 5.27, with Oblak exceeding expectations with goals denied. That is testament to him, as that figure ranks him fourth of current LaLiga goalkeepers for xG denied, behind FC Barcelona‘s Marc-André Ter Stegen, Sevilla’s Yassine Bounou, Jeremías Ledesma of Cádiz and Fernando Martínez of Almería. Given that three of those listed have faced and conceded from a huge number of chances, Oblak is in a unique category alongside the German, who currently sits top of LaLiga.
That is where a goalkeeper of Oblak’s talents belongs. In Pamplona, the Slovenian star grabbed his team a point when other goalkeepers would have struggled to do so. If Atlético end up securing top four this season, it will be down in large part to his efforts.