Reaching the halfway point of the Champions League group stage, Atlético Madrid returned to the scene of their historic 1974 clash with Celtic as they travelled to Glasgow. This time, tempers would flare a little less than that game, where Atleti ended with eight players, but less satisfied by the result which ended with a 2-2 draw.
Celtic twice took the lead, with Kyogo Furuhashi’s early strike finding space in defence to set him up to score. The first Atlético goal was Antoine Griezmann’s, pouncing after Joe Hart denied his penalty. Celtic retook the lead three minutes later as Luis Palma finished with one touch off the post, before Atlético’s second came from Spain international Álvaro Morata, crouching to head in a Marcos Llorente cross. The scoreline remained level, although Rodrigo de Paul’s night ended badly as he was sent off for a second yellow card offence.
Here, we take a look at some of the leading talking points from the game.
1. Is Álvaro Morata finally playing how we always hoped he would?
Three games and three goals in the Champions League reflects Álvaro Morata’s incredible form to start this season across all competitions. He is now on eight goals in 11 games at club level, with a further four in four for Spain this season. That’s the form of a world-class striker and that is what Atleti have been desperately needing.
What’s more impressive is that his eight goals have come from 3.55 xG, outperforming his expected goals substantially. That could suggest that he will struggle to maintain this form throughout the full campaign, which would be normal, but it also represents the first time that he has outperformed his xG so substantially in an Atlético shirt.
Since Alvaro Morata learned the offside rule he's been on another level. What a player, what an incredible player.— Alexandra Jonson (@AlexandraJonson) October 25, 2023
Morata is a confidence player and this will be helping him to boost his form further. He now appears to be one of the first names on Diego Simeone’s team-sheet and with good reason, and that poacher’s instinct is what helped him to nod in Atleti’s second goal on Wednesday night.
2. Does the 5-3-2 work without Samuel Lino?
Without either Yannick Carrasco or Samuel Lino down the left flank, Javi Galán came in, and while we’ll take a look at the former Celta Vigo man’s performance in more detail a little later, there were more concerning structural issues with the 5-3-2 shape that had worked so well in recent months.
Gaps were opening up frequently in the defensive unit with a seeming disconnect between the midfield and defence, and in particular in the wide areas where Nahuel Molina and Javi Galán were leaving spaces which Celtic were only to happy to exploit with their pace in the final third.
The lack of discipline and experience in the system saw those gaps open up and Celtic’s pace made them the nightmare opponent to be facing in such a situation. With Lino set to be out for a while, it seems likely that Simeone will have to find an alternative solution or work hard on the training ground to fix the spaces which were opening up.
3. Or was Diego Simeone right to leave out Javi Galán?
That turns our attentions onto the principal change: the introduction of Javi Galán.
Galán was making his first start for the club since joining in the summer, but was hauled off at half-time by a Diego Simeone who seemed to be unimpressed by the 45 minutes produced by the Spanish full-back.
It’s true that this system sees Galán deployed in a different role to that which has become accustomed to during his time at Huesca and Celta Vigo. Used to playing in a back four, the wing-back system deployed by Atleti is one that he has had little experience with and this was his first start in European football. It was a test for the 28 year old, and it looked clunky and uncomfortable as him and Mario Hermoso most certainly looked like two players playing alongside one another for the first time.
️| Diego Simeone: “Javi Galán? I expected him to handle the role as a full-back against a very fast winger. Within his characteristics, he’s suitable for these matches with speed, and I decided to sub him to avoid risks with the yellow card, as happened with Barrios when he was…— Atletico Universe (@atletiuniverse) October 25, 2023
It’s also true that Celtic were targeting him down the left flank. The pace of the Celtic attack through Palma was a real threat and it meant that even though Galan only played 45 minutes, he still had involvement in eight fouls. He would win four of those, but the real issue came in that he committed two fouls and picked up a yellow card. Simeone would point to that as the reason that he was withdrawn at the break.
Even now, it still feels too early to tell if Galán is up to scratch or not for Atlético. Rodrigo Riquelme, equally as uncomfortable in that position, replaced him and recorded a higher win rate in duels and contributed more offensively, and may well have jumped ahead of him in the pecking order. Judgements on Galán still seem precipitated, but he’s not making the best case for himself either.
4. Axel Witsel is in the best form since he joined
This column has been highly critical of Axel Witsel at times in his Atlético career, but the former Dortmund man has been in excellent form in the most recent fixtures. Playing in the heart of the back three in his new central defensive role, he marshalled the back line effectively and led the distribution out of the defence.
With a 94% pass completion rate, his ability to take the ball out from the back was essential to connecting with the midfield and providing that link. While it was slow starting, Witsel was pivotal in turning the game around and starting to get Atleti back on top of the tie.
The veteran finally appears to have settled into the role, adjusting to his lack of pace in a demanding position, and Simeone looks to have found the way to get the best out of him within the defensive unit. With Stefan Savić and Mario Hermoso either side of him, the defensive unit now seems to be working well as a team, it’s just the flanks that are proving problematic.