Atlético Madrid made it 12 home wins in a row as they came back from the dead to haunt Cádiz, who took a 0-2 lead before succumbing to a 3-2 defeat at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano on Sunday.
The win came after a disastrous start, which saw Lucas Pires and Roger Martí score inside the opening half an hour to give the visitors a shock lead. Fortunately, Ángel Correa reacted quickly with a first goal to cut back the difference with a header from a César Azpilicueta cross.
In the second period, Nahuel Molina started much brighter after a poor first half, scoring as he poked the ball over the line in a scramble in the box. The winning goal came shortly after the hour mark, with Samuel Lino making the difference to set up Saúl to feed in Correa for the Argentine’s second goal on the night.
Here are four talking points from the game, with all the action that came with it.
1. Ángel Correa is undervalued
Ah, that man again. Every time we forget about the talents of Ángel Correa, he reappears at just the moment that Atlético need him the most to make all the difference.
This time was perhaps the best example yet, with Memphis Depay and Álvaro Morata both unavailable due to injury and suspension. Correa raced back from an injury suffered after Jude Bellingham’s horror tackle in last weekend’s derby — and thankfully for Diego Simeone, there was no sign of that inhibiting Correa’s play at all.
The Argentine looked deadly in the box, recording four shots, three of which were on target, all within the 18-yard box. Two of those came from close range, inside eight yards, for his two goals which turned the tie on its head. His total of 1.2 xG showed the quality of the chances that he found, but even more important was the 2.3 xGoT, which provides some insight into the quality of his finishing.
It was Correa’s right-footed effort which forced a save from Jeremías Ledesma just moments before his opening goal, and which was probably his highest-quality shot of the night.
Ladies and gentlemen, ÁNGEL CORREA. pic.twitter.com/8zqc66hOQF— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) October 1, 2023
Correa may feel that he is fourth choice within Atleti’s attacking options, and he’s most likely right. He should be frustrated about that, too. His tally for the season is now up to three goals in five appearances, but only one start. He has already matched his goal return in LaLiga for the 2018/19 campaign, and is on track to surpass even his best scoring record.
If Correa can prove his doubters — with Simeone perhaps included in that group — wrong, nobody would be happier than the Colchoneros cheering him on.
2. This team is made of stern stuff
Following up a Madrid derby win with an exhausting but comfortable win in a tricky away trip to Pamplona against Osasuna is a tough task. Returning home to then come back from 2-0 down is an even bigger task.
Of course, any team looking to compete for titles should not find themselves 2-0 down at home to a team of relegation candidates, but Atleti’s defensive issues mean that such blips are almost inevitable this season.
Fighting back, taking the goals scored tally to 18 from seven matches to rank second behind only Barcelona, showed the character of this team. That is what Atleti lacked so substantially last season, particularly at this time of the year.
This team still needs much more rotation and resting to get through this season. Injuries continue to plague several players, even with the likes of Rodrigo de Paul now returning to action. The absence of Josema Giménez was notable, particularly in the first half when chaos reigned in defence.
Overcoming adversity will be the main challenge for this team, one with a limited squad size that will be fighting on various fronts to compete both domestically and in the Champions League. But what’s evident is that this squad has what it takes to do just that — and perhaps no one relishes adversity more than Diego Pablo Simeone.
3. Axel Witsel’s contribution might just be clear at last
This column has been highly critical of Axel Witsel effectively since he joined Atlético Madrid, and there have been few times when he has ever proven us wrong. In fact, he seems to only further confirm our view that he’s past it, at best.
But, on this occasion, he did offer something in the midfield. And this is perhaps the reason that Simeone signed him and the motive behind his persistence with the Belgian. Up against sides playing with a low-block, he can be the perfect go-between that alternates between a back three and a five in midfield in terms of distribution, freeing up Koke to move forward.
The below tweet from the superb Atlético Stats account shows that Witsel attempted 130 passes against Cádiz, the most from an Atleti player in a single appearance since records began in 2005/06 and overtaking Koke’s 127 passes against Las Palmas in 2017.
— Atlético Stats (@atletico_stats_) October 1, 2023
Axel Witsel ha terminado el partido con el registro más alto de pases totales (130 - 94% porcentaje de acierto)
Es la mayor cantidad de pases de un jugador del Atleti desde al menos la campaña 2005/06, superando a Koke (127 vs Las Palmas en 2017). pic.twitter.com/YG2nUlPxnE
Granted, many of those passes were not cutting-edge through balls into the final third, but they did help to keep Atleti ticking and did wear down the Cádiz midfield, which was unable to keep up with Atleti’s rapid passing at times.
Witsel has a limited role, more due to the harsh reality of age and the loss of a yard of pace than because of his technical ability. But on this occasion, Simeone found the way to make the most of what he has still got.
4. Saúl is reborn
Who expected Saúl to be LaLiga’s leading provider of assists after seven games of action?
Well, I certainly didn’t. Saúl had only recorded five assists in all competitions in his last five seasons, and it seemed inevitable that he would have a bit-part role to play for Atlético this season. Now, with injuries giving him an opportunity to shine, he’s taking advantage as best he can.
On this occasion, Saúl’s three chances created were more than anyone else on the field of play, and he also had two shots, though neither hit the target. This was a Saúl unleashed, free of many of the defensive responsibilities that have shackled him and thriving in the freedom given to him, particularly following the withdrawal of Marcos Llorente on the hour mark.
There is an argument to be made that Saúl has been Atleti’s best midfielder to date this season. Llorente has struggled for form, and Koke, De Paul, Thomas Lemar, and Pablo Barrios have all suffered with injuries. If Simeone wants a reliable option, he could do far worse than Saúl.
It’s easy to forget that the Spaniard is only 28 years of age. His contract still has a bloated wage, far more than pertains to his squad status, but it is clear he still has plenty left to offer Atlético. Getting more out of him with this run of form and these performances could see his second coming.