Atlético Madrid are into the last 16 of the Copa del Rey courtesy of a routine 2-0 win over Real Oviedo — which was handled with composure and quality, despite the tough test provided by their Segunda opposition.
The goals came from Marcos Llorente (more on him later) and youngster Pablo Barrios, who added his second of the season in the tournament after scoring against fourth-tier Arenteiro last month
Pablo Barrios is going to be a special player. That’s now 2 goals in his two Copa Del Rey appearances with Atlético Madrid’s first team— Andrew Miller (@AndrewMillerNBA) January 4, 2023
Here, we’ll take a look at three points from the battle with the Asturian side that give some insight into Atlético’s situation and what we could see in the games ahead.
The new old Marcos Llorente
Since the end of the 2020/21 campaign, Atleti fans have been crying out for Marcos Llorente to get back to the form he showed in that league-winning season.
Against Oviedo, he showed signs that he could be capable of doing just that.
Llorente’s fine display was capped off with his 24th-minute goal. Antoine Griezmann produced one of his best assists in some time to chip over the Oviedo defence, but Llorente had plenty of work left to do and his dinked finish over Tomeu Nadal was reminiscent of the confidence he had during his peak 2020/21 campaign.
But it was more than just a moment of quality that brought flashbacks of Llorente’s best form. Llorente looked to break into the final third much more and was making runs from deeper positions to break the line, while Álvaro Morata would sit on the shoulder of the last man. The duo’s movement split the Oviedo defence repeatedly.
By taking a look at his heat map — especially when comparing it to his average heat maps from past seasons — we can see that Llorente was not operating as a wing-back, with Nahuel Molina taking up that role, but getting into more central and more advanced positions, with the Argentine supporting him in behind.
Llorente hasn’t taken up such a role so effectively for some time. This more advanced role could be crucial to getting the best out of the men ahead of him. But with FC Barcelona on the horizon — and with Jordi Alba suspended for the Blaugrana — the idea of Llorente coming up against young Alejandro Baldé could be a key battle in deciding that result.
Reinildo has been frozen out
Before the World Cup break, Reinildo Mandava had played all but 28 minutes of Atlético de Madrid’s season, starting in every game.
In the three matches since, he has only made it onto the field against Arenteiro and Oviedo for less than half an hour in each contest.
Instead, Mario Hermoso appears to have usurped him into the starting back three, with Axel Witsel replacing Stefan Savić against Oviedo following an injury to the Montenegrin.
The change seems baffling.
“I have spoken with Reinildo about why at the moment I am counting on a teammate who has not played much, like Mario [Hermoso], and the importance that he has in the face of everything that can happen in the same game, if he has to play again (from the start), or the next game,” Simeone revealed after leaving the Mozambican on the bench against Elche.
“We were looking to generate what we did with Mario, because beyond the red card, he had a good game,” Simeone continued. “Great pass on Morata’s sending off (in the first half when Elche went down to 10), another great pass before that, good circulation, good defensive work as he did in the year we won the league.”
But perhaps the true explanation lies not only in the alternatives, but in Reinildo’s preferences himself.
“Reinildo is not a central defender, he is a left-back, and he feels more comfortable there, but he has given us a lot, no doubt,” Simeone finished his response with after the Elche game.
Against Oviedo, Reinildo came on a few minutes after the hour and looked his usual solid self, with no scares or concerns. It is evident that Reinildo’s absence is not because of his performances, but because of a tactical choice from Simeone.
It will be fascinating to see if Reinildo comes back in for Barça’s visit at the weekend given Hermoso will be suspended. But it looks unlikely.
Did Álvaro Cervera hit the nail on the head?
“Now it seems that they doubt him, but I don’t, I rather doubt what surrounds him.”
That was Oviedo coach Álvaro Cervera reflecting pre-match on Cholo Simeone and the pressure he has been under at Atleti.
“For me, Simeone is a reference to learn from, he has made his team compete for a long time against the big teams,” he added.
It is somewhat ironic that it takes somebody external to see perhaps the best reflection of what is happening at Atlético and where the real problems lie within the system. Cervera has played against Simeone many times during his stint as Cádiz coach and the two enjoy a cordial relationship, therefore providing insight into what goes on behind the scenes.
The pressure remains on. A lack of Champions League football has dented the finances and Atlético now face a fight to qualify for it next season by finishing in the top four after a slow start to the campaign.
While signs against Elche and Oviedo have been positive, neither has posed a real test and consistency is the key.
What is clear is that Atlético are putting their faith in Simeone. The board have clearly decided to back their coach and instead change the squad, a risky approach but one that solidifies his position as the man of authority. The likes of João Félix even seem to have learned that a battle for influence against Simeone is not one that they can win.
The Copa del Rey could provide a welcome escape route. With this win, Atleti have reached the last 16, and with it their furthest progress in the competition since 2018/19. Five Primera División teams already knocked out. This is certainly the Rojiblancos’ best chance of silverware this season.
Additionally, the upcoming Spanish Super Cup will impact Real Madrid, Barcelona, Real Betis and Valencia, while the Club World Cup will also take over Madrid’s schedule. The upcoming European fixtures for the Clásico duo, as well as for Betis, Villarreal and Real Sociedad, will produce a hectic calendar for some of Atlético’s competitors. The Copa may well fall low in the list of priorities for some of those clubs as they balance a heavy workload.
That puts Atleti in pole position to capitalise and seek to get their hands on the Copa for the first time since 2013.