Atlético Madrid took on Villarreal just after they dismissed Pacheta as coach late this week, and though they fought hard to disappoint the hosts, Atlético ultimately ran out 3-1 winners at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano on Sunday night.
Atleti were forced to come from behind after Gerard Moreno struck to give the away team a first-half lead, but Axel Witsel found himself in the right place at the right time to equalise on the stroke of half-time. The goals to decide the game always looked more likely to come from Atleti after that, but it wasn’t until the 80th minute when Antoine Griezmann scored to put the home team ahead, with Samuel Lino adding a third five minutes later.
Here are four of the key talking points from the game.
1. Diego Simeone overcame his bogey team at last thanks to his squad depth
Simeone won four of his first six matches against Villarreal as Atlético de Madrid coach, but since then they have proven to be his worst nightmare. Seventeen games have followed those first six, but they have only included four wins to make it seven victories in 22 meetings. That includes the previous three home games in a row against Villarreal — all ended without a win.
El Cholo on Sunday turned that record around, with this being his first win against the side since February 2021 (when Unai Emery was in charge) and his first home win against them since February 2020 (when it was Javier Calleja in the dugout). Since then, Quique Setién and Pacheta have both been in charge and been sacked.
Again, Villarreal made life difficult for Atlético and came close to taking a point away from the Metropolitano for the fourth consecutive game. Late goals in this fixture are nothing new, as Aïssa Mandi’s injury-time own goal to equalise for Atleti two years ago proves, but it does show the power of the fitness work and depth of this squad this season.
Antoine Griezmann, who was given 30 minutes of rest against Celtic, scored the second goal, but it was substitutes Marcos Llorente, Pablo Barrios and Samuel Lino who provided the assists and the third goal. Their energy against a side that had defended very deep and exhausted themselves was exactly what Atlético needed.
“You always want your substitutes to play like the guys who came off the bench today played,” Griezmann said post-match. “Some of them deserve to be playing, but it’s a shame that only 11 of us can play and sometimes we all have to be on the bench.”
2. Simeone got it wrong with Saúl over Samuel Lino
In the build-up to this game, there was a lot of talk over who Simeone would select to start in the interior midfield position on the left flank. In training through the week, the coach alternated between Lino and Saúl Ñíguez. Many suggested the Brazilian could be the man to get the nod.
Eventually, Simeone opted for Saúl, and it was the homegrown player who started in his usual position. He did little to justify that decision and was hauled off at the break. He won three of nine duels and lost the ball on six occasions despite having only 17 involvements in possession. His risky pressing opened spaces for Villarreal, and they capitalised in the move for the first goal.
What was particularly strange was that it was Llorente who replaced Saúl after 45 minutes. Simeone had trained with Lino in that position all week; nobody saw Llorente’s introduction coming. His athleticism and dynamism was particularly what Simeone wanted to push for the higher press, not relying so much on the untested Lino in the midfield role with Rodrigo Riquelme down the flank.
When Lino did come on, he replaced Riquelme for the direct replacement in the wing-back role. He showed what he could do, finishing off a Pablo Barrios pass (following the midfielder’s mazy run into the final third) for his second league goal this season. Having such options is the luxury that Simeone has, even if it does mean he’s more open to criticism if he’s seen to get the call wrong. On this occasion, Lino’s point was proven.
| Samuel Lino on IG: “Living a dream. Vamos Atleti ❤️ ” pic.twitter.com/C01GVDC1FF— Atletico Universe (@atletiuniverse) November 13, 2023
3. Axel Witsel’s form deserved a goal
A recurring theme in recent weeks has been the impressive form of Axel Witsel in the middle of the back three. Once again, the Belgian was the outstanding choice of the trio in defence, but Witsel also got his first goal in an Atlético shirt as a reward for his fine performances in recent weeks.
Witsel won all three of his duels and recorded 91% passing accuracy on Sunday night. He led by example — Gerard Moreno was well-handled, even when Villarreal looked to pounce with rapid counterattacks, but Witsel’s positioning put him in a strong place to defend against the Yellow Submarine.
Witsel found himself in threatening positions at set pieces in recent weeks and this time he did so again, finding space hanging on at the back post to get in and score with a hooked effort fired into the roof of the net. The 34-year-old is proving himself to be a valuable asset for the club and has been the team’s most consistent defender this season.
What’s more, this was Witsel’s 15th game this season, and he is yet to pick up a single yellow card. That kind of composure is exactly what Atlético’s defence has needed.
4. The Metropolitano is getting better and better
It’s hard to believe that at the start of this calendar year, the Grada de Animación at the Cívitas Metropolitano were on strike and refusing to chant. The atmosphere in recent home games has arguably been the best it has been since the club moved to their new home in 2017.
The Metropolitano has never been the best acoustically, and it’s evident that it is not and never will be the Estadio Vicente Calderón (the reason being more than “‘Into the Metropolitano’ just sounds weird”). Even so, Atlético fans turned up in numbers for yet another 9pm kick-off, this time on a Sunday night, and produced a lot of noise to cheer on their team.
Villarreal with the 8-2-0 formation against Atlético. pic.twitter.com/jFIdx6l4cH— Sam Leveridge (@samleveridge) November 12, 2023
This game was one of the toughest challenges Atleti have faced on home turf to date this season. Villarreal may not have the quality of some of the other sides that have visited or will visit the stadium, but they were happy to defend deep and play for a draw with an experienced midfield and defence who were able to shut down the game well. At times, Atleti fans in the past may have groaned in frustration, but not this time — they continued to push the team on throughout from start to finish and it paid off.
Granted, Champions League nights always have that extra something special, as was the case for the thrilling game against Feyenoord last month. But even in the league, home games this season have largely produced entertaining action and goals galore for Los Rojiblancos, not to mention a new record — the most consecutive home wins in league play over the club’s entire history.
Long may it continue.