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3 things learned from Atlético Madrid’s loss at Barcelona

Adapting to a Koke-less existence.

FC Barcelona v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid’s impressive unbeaten streak in LaLiga was brought to an end by the last team to beat them, FC Barcelona, as they took on Xavi Hernández’s team at Camp Nou on Sunday.

The only goal came on the stroke of half-time, as Raphinha cut the ball back into the middle for Ferràn Torres, who won a battle with Mario Hermoso and calmly beat Jan Oblak.

Atlético failed to score for the first time since they last faced Barcelona, in January. Diego Simeone’s team also saw its six-game winning streak come to an end.

Here are three things we learned from the game.

This is still a work in progress

Atlético have taken huge strides in their performances and results since the start of 2023, and falling to defeat only to the league leader in this calendar year in LaLiga is certainly nothing to be ashamed about.

But, it’s also true that this match showed where Atleti have further room for improvement.

One crucial element of this was Koke’s absence. It was a massive blow to the team to lose their captain and midfield metronome to injury so close to kickoff, particularly as he has been so influential in establishing the pace and speed of build-up play.

Axel Witsel, who started in his place, had nowhere near as much influence. In total, the Belgian had the fewest touches of any player to start the game at 26, while Koke is usually the man to lead the team for touches and passes.

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

The loss of influence in the middle led to a second consequence caused by the choice of attackers.

With Ángel Correa in the side, Simeone’s teams have tended to favour a more gradual and patient build-up. Players like Mario Hermoso bring the ball out from the back and form triangles with the wing-back and a forward. It has worked well.

At Camp Nou, that approach wasn’t so successful. Neither Hermoso nor any of the men around him looked as composed on the ball. Barcelona’s press put them under immense pressure and forced direct long balls. Between Rodrigo de Paul, José María Giménez and Stefan Savić, Atleti registered 27 long balls. Less than 56% were completed.

That’s because Correa does not have the physical presence of Memphis Depay or Álvaro Morata in attack, both of whom have been deployed more like physical centre-forwards and number nines since the turn of the year. Whether it’s bringing in press-resistent midfielders and defenders or adapting his forwards, it showed Simeone that his team isn’t fully comfortable with the new system yet.

Time for Savić to move on

Among the changes in the Atlético team from the side to beat Almería was the return of Stefan Savić. Usually one of the first names on the teamsheet, he instead looked a weak link in the Atleti defence as he visibly struggled — no doubt due to a broken toe he suffered during the game.

The 32-year-old Montenegrin has long been a symbol of defensive solidity, but at Camp Nou was anything but that. Whether it was his foot or his back or something else, Savić looked slow and committed to challenges too easily. He was dragged out of position and pulled all over the place by the movement of Barcelona’s attackers.

In fairness to Savić, it did not help him that much of Atleti’s balance on the right had changed. Suspension to Marcos Llorente meant Rodrigo de Paul was deployed on the right — not necessarily a downgrade, but certainly an option with less of a tendency to drop back when required. That left Savić vulnerable, with space to run at him for Barcelona’s forwards.

“Today I chose Ferràn because I thought he’d be perfect, and he was,” Xavi explained post-match. “When de Paul advanced, he had to play between the lines and when Savić advanced, he had to take advantage of the space he left behind.”

FC Barcelona v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

With his contract up next summer, this performance and his consequent injury, a broken bone in his little toe, it’s easy to be concerned about Savić’s viability going forward. Injury-prone and always needing time to get up to speed, the veteran is not a reliable option for a squad that will likely be limited in size again next season.

A loyal servant since 2015, Savić has been a key part of Rojiblanco sides through the years, but now it does firmly look as though his best years are behind him. With a limited squad due to finances, it would be madness to choose to rely upon a player who cannot sustain his form or fitness.

Should an opportunity arise for Savić, it could be best for all parties for him to move on.

Antoine Griezmann regret

Looking back now, it almost feels as though Antoine Griezmann never played for Barcelona. That was a blip in the Matrix. A bizarre parallel universe. A terrible nightmare. But it did happen. And he’s a better player since he came back.

This return to Camp Nou was always going to be a bizarre one for him, his first since leaving Barcelona on a permanent deal to join Atleti. The reception he faced was hostile, perhaps not befitting his respectable rate of a goal or assist in every other game during a difficult time for the Catalan club.

FC Barcelona v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

The France forward was not nervous though, and he showed as much by rocking the woodwork within the opening minute. Griezmann was back in his element and had a point to prove. He went on to have a further three shots and looked a threat throughout.

Though Barcelona limited Atleti’s ability to create chances, Griezmann continually found himself in dangerous areas around the penalty spot to turn a half-chance into a solid attempt on goal.

For Colchoneros around the world, there will always be that “what if” thought. Griezmann has never won a league title with Atlético, and the one that came in 2021 might have been just a little sweeter had we seen Griezmann with a gold medal, lifting the trophy in red and white.

There can be little doubting the fact that Griezmann is an Atlético legend, and he remains on course to overtake Luis Aragonés as the club’s record goalscorer, most likely next season. He could already be there if he had stayed.