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3 things we learned from Atlético Madrid’s late win over Girona

Morata’s injury-time winner secured three points.

Girona FC v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid secured their first-ever win at Estadi Montilivi on Monday, as they overcame Girona courtesy of Álvaro Morata’s injury-time winner at the far post from a messy corner.

Diego Simeone’s men had to work hard for the three points in Catalonia, having seen numerous chances go begging and having seen Jan Oblak tested to the limit. But the Colchoneros saw it out and are now three points clear of fourth-place Real Sociedad.

Here, we take a look at three things learned from Monday’s battle, which extended Atlético’s unbeaten run in LaLiga to nine games.

Being a team player pays off

It was poetic that substitute Morata got the winner. It was his third goal in two appearances, both off the bench and with just 67 minutes of action between them. It gives him an average of a goal every 22 minutes and 20 seconds over the past week.

The forward looked lively ever since coming off the bench and has shown a tremendous work rate and attitude since losing his place in the team, even with Memphis Depay now having usurped him in the pecking order.

It was just that which saw him find half a yard of space to dive in at the far post and ensure that Cristhian Stuani’s deflection did end up going into the Girona net, leaving absolutely nothing to chance, even with a marginal VAR offside call.

“I’ve been denied 15 goals by VAR, but today they gave me one,” he joked in his post-match interview.

It was his only shot of the night, but one which showed the cutting edge we saw in last weekend’s rout of Sevilla, when he scored twice in the final 15 minutes. Morata looks to be more confident than ever despite having a bit-part role to play within the squad of late.

“I’m here to help the team,” he said when asked about his role as a substitute. “I want to play like all my teammates, but I’m here to work and I hope we continue to be strong all together to carry on this form.”

What’s more, this approach shows a contrast in fortunes and attitudes. One of the substitutes, coming on with only nine minutes left, was Axel Witsel. Mere days ago, his father Thierry ranted to the Belgian press about Axel’s lack of playing time.

Girona FC v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Witsel’s father revealed that the 34-year-old veteran had demanded a meeting with Simeone after starting only one game in the 2023 calendar year, then being given a start against Sevilla but returning to the bench against Girona.

“When he left Borussia Dortmund and signed for Atlético, Axel expected to be a starter,” Thierry told RTBF. “He didn’t take it well to be relegated to the bench. He asked Diego Simeone for a meeting and expressed his disappointment and discontent... Even at 34, Axel still wants to and can play at a high level. If he’s not doing enough and he’s not happy, we’ll look at the possibilities that come up.”

Given what he contributed, and the stark contrast to Morata, Witsel would do well to learn from the example of his younger team-mates or take the chance to move on in the summer.

Girona were a very different test to Sevilla

This was more like the Atlético that we have seen throughout much of this season — a strong defensive display almost counting for very little due to a wasteful performance on the attacking side of the game.

If we remove the 0.91 xG chance that Morata converted from inches out in injury time, Atleti had 1.18 xG that they failed to convert. With it, the Rojiblancos converted one goal from 2.09 xG and were resolute defensively, conceding 0.33 xG, with no chances of more than 0.09 xG value.

Memphis had two high-quality chances in the first half, both ranking at higher than 0.2 xG, and both of which he smashed over the bar as he favoured power to placement. It was quite the opposite of the composure he showed against Sevilla a week ago.

Atlético didn’t struggle to create chances and did register 14 shots, 10 of them coming inside the box. As usual, Antoine Griezmann led the way with three chances created, but there was plenty of contribution from those around him, with two each from Ángel Correa and Thomas Lemar to prove that the midfield was offering something to support the forward line.

One of the more interesting tactical tweaks of the night was highlighted by our own Robbie Dunne. It involved Mario Hermoso stepping up into the midfield line when in possession, effectively moving the formation into a 4-2-2-2 but affording more flexibility to Lemar and Marcos Llorente to step up, sitting alongside Koke in a central role.

The move is one we haven’t seen much of before, but it was key to finding gaps in Girona’s low block. That has been a challenge for much of this season. Hermoso’s presence in the midfield offered a different outlet and flexibility. His adaptability, being able to play in a back three, four, or even stepping into midfield, shows why Simeone values his talents so highly. His technical quality on the ball is among the best in the squad, and that makes him a very different, and very valuable, option.

Against Sevilla, we saw the potential of this team up against a side with a high line that leaves space to run into. Atlético tore them apart. But at Montilivi, we saw a very different test against a Girona side happy to sit deep, and Atleti struggled to find their way through until the end. But they managed to create plenty of opportunities, and Simeone can be pleased with that.

Rodrigo Riquelme will add real value to this Atleti squad

Potentially the brightest sign for the future of Atlético Madrid came dressed in red and white. Unsurprising. Bizarrely, it was for Girona, in the shape of midfielder Rodrigo Riquelme, playing on loan at the Catalan side.

Riquelme scored at the Metropolitano earlier in the season in the reverse fixture. Questions were raised over the lack of a “fear clause” (as the Spanish call it) in his loan contract, which would prohibit him from playing against his parent club — where the coach already thinks Riquelme is good enough for elite-level football.

“You have a spot, but there is an ‘overbooking’ of players up top. Maybe you won’t get the minutes you need to develop, but you have the last word,” Diego Simeone is claimed to have told Riquelme in the summer, according to a report by Relevo in the build-up to this game.

Girona FC v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

This audition in front of Simeone and potential future teammates showed what Riquelme can do. His 94% passing accuracy created one chance and he had two shots, more than any other Girona player, and the 22-year-old was a constant thorn in Nahuel Molina’s side.

Riquelme’s ability to carry the ball and progress effectively was far superior to that of Yannick Carrasco, playing in a blue shirt on the opposite flank. Where Carrasco lost possession all too easily and lacked an end product, Riquelme matched him for dribbles and completed both of his attempted crosses, whereas the Belgian failed to complete one.

Given his much cheaper wages, it’s easy to see why those in the Atlético hierarchy are only too happy to have Riquelme come in to the first team squad next season and have a role to play, potentially even replacing Carrasco. But beyond that, his performance Monday night was the perfect example of why Riquelme was brave to try his luck and go elsewhere.

Girona is not an easy place to settle in or prove yourself, but Riquelme’s creativity, flair, and technical ability show that he has the potential to play at a higher level. He should do that with Atlético de Madrid.