Against the odds, Atlético Madrid secured a crucial away win against Celta Vigo to maintain their impressive form on the road, courtesy of a late winner from substitute Memphis Depay.
The Galicians had put up a stern test and demanded the very best from Jan Oblak, who clawed a ball off the line and produced a magnificent stop to deny a Reinildo own goal, but it was Memphis who had the final say late on.
Here are three things we learned from the game.
Stefan Savić has no place in this team
After picking up his third red card in five games, Savić left his team hanging by a thread in their hunt for a victory. It was just the latest indication that the central defender is no longer good enough to be considered a regular starter for Atlético de Madrid.
Savić’s experience and time at the club should be positioning him as one of those players who can lead this team and seek to set an example. Instead, he again let his team down against Celta Vigo with an almost unheard of record of red cards.
Regardless of the refereeing decision itself, Savić knew that by making that challenge against Haris Seferović that he would be giving the referee a decision to make. Perhaps his reputation and recent form even preceded him, and helped to persuade the referee of the right call.
How can we really criticise Mario Hermoso for lashing out or diving in when he’s playing alongside Savić who does the same? Or even José María Giménez, who is busy lashing out at VAR and FIFA officials?
Savić’s ill discipline also points to a wider problem within this team. This was Atlético’s seventh red card of the season in their 32nd game — one every 411 minutes in all competitions. In LaLiga, where there have been six red cards in 21 games, that rate is one for every 315 minutes.
Such flagrant indiscipline is simply unsustainable when it comes to attempting to build a solid defensive unit. Diego Simeone’s teams have not always been angels, and there have been plenty of cases of players like Diego Costa having a poor disciplinary record, but losing central defenders to this kind of nonsense poses a much higher risk.
The Memphis impact could be the difference between la ida and la vuelta
When we ask “what do Atlético have to improve upon between the first and second half of the season,” the main point has to be how clinical this team is in front of goal. In Memphis Depay, Atleti may just have found an answer.
On Sunday, Atleti generated only 0.96 expected goals, with no attacking player having more than 0.15 xG. But they still managed to grind out the win. It’s the first time since October 23 against Real Betis that Atleti have managed to get the three points despite having a lower xG than their rivals.
Memphis’s poacher’s instinct helped him to convert as he dropped off his marker and span quickly to convert in what was a mere half-chance, as a deflected shot from Yannick Carrasco spun across the box. It’s hard to envisage that the likes of Álvaro Morata would have found themselves in the same position or making the same move.
MEMPHIS pic.twitter.com/Sx8tTyjUiC— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) February 12, 2023
If Memphis has been the replacement for Matheus Cunha, he’s already registered more goals than the Brazilian. Considering that Morata’s form fluctuates hugely, Antoine Griezmann isn’t as prolific as he once was, and Ángel Correa scores in fits and bursts, having a number nine who can play in that kind of role and convert the half-chances might be decisive in the weeks ahead.
The Dutch international is clearly still not at full fitness and has work to do on the training ground, but even so, he’s proven himself able to make an impact off the bench in games. If he can continue to do that, Colchoneros will be more than satisfied with his impact this season — it could be crucial in pushing Atlético on to a top four spot.
It’s crucial to find Pablo Barrios’ role in this team
Playing only 45 minutes and registering the third-highest number of possession losses at 12 may be a concerning sign for 19-year-old Pablo Barrios, but the truth is that Simeone is yet to truly find where he fits into this Atlético Madrid team and the current 4-3-3 system.
Simeone has tried him repeatedly in this same role, acting almost as an interior midfielder to the side of Koke, but without necessarily having the freedom of Rodrigo de Paul. It hasn’t quite clicked for the teenager. Rather, he plays like a man in chains.
The half-time change for Carrasco spoke volumes. It was not just a change of personnel but a change in system that allowed Atlético to grow into the game and establish more dominance. With that, Atleti looked more dangerous down the flanks and had a more direct, vertical threat.
The challenge that both player and coach face is that this promising teenager is not playing badly by any stretch, but he hasn’t quite found his role within this team yet. He still has only a handful of matches under his belt at the highest level and is growing into the team, but it’s hard to imagine where he can fit in to thrive.
Barrios was afforded more freedom with Atleti B under Fernando Torres and other youth coaches through the academy. He could drive forward from a deeper initial position and look to break into the final third. But in the first team, with players like Griezmann and Marcos Llorente ahead of him and De Paul alongside him in the middle, that isn’t a role he can play in quite the same way.
Simeone is clearly keen on Barrios and is looking to incorporate him into his system one way or another, but is yet to “dar con la tecla” and find the solution that is where he works best. Fortunately, the teenager has time on his side, but he won’t enjoy the rough ride of being thrown to the wolves adapting to new roles.