Atlético Madrid threw a party on Wednesday evening, as they celebrated the occasion of their 120th birthday in style with a 3-1 win over former coach Javier Aguirre and his resolute Mallorca team.
Matija Nastasić gave the visitors a surprise early lead after he scored at the back post from a corner. And when a penalty overturned a penalty for Atlético, the first this season, it felt as though it could be a long 90 minutes.
However, Rodrigo de Paul was in the right place at the right time to convert a loose ball in the box in injury time of the first half. In the second period, a left-footed Nahuel Molina cross found Álvaro Morata to convert and give Atleti the lead, which Yannick Carrasco would add to after some superb work by Antoine Griezmann.
Here are three things learned from the game.
120 years old is a special occasion
A midweek early evening kick-off against Mallorca with little to play for in late April is never going to rank as a candidate for a truly memorable atmosphere. But the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano was rocking for this occasion.
It was the 120th anniversary of the club’s foundation, as Atlético were initially established by a group of Athletic Club fans who had left their Basque homes to study in the Spanish capital — and to rival their new enemies, Real Madrid.
A century and some change later, Atlético are still going strong.
Flags were distributed to fans to wave and enjoy the celebration, with events before and after the game, including a collection of current and former players for both the men’s and women’s teams who gathered on the field for a photo together. This was a true demonstration of the Atlético de Madrid family.
The team also donned a special jersey, sporting the blue and white halves which were originally worn 120 years ago after the kits were purchased from Blackburn Rovers in England. It was the same as Athletic Club wore at the time, with a unique crest. It was no surprise to see the jerseys flying off the shelves despite the exorbitant price.
In a season where division has ruled among fans and supporters groups for the most part, with battles over the club crest in particular, Wednesday was a truly special occasion to see such unity in the stands. The fans came together to produce a magnificent atmosphere.
Koke showed why he was missed against Barcelona
If there was one man whose unavailability made a difference at Camp Nou at the weekend, it would have to be captain Koke. Having suffered a muscle injury, Diego Simeone opted not to risk his number six in the starting line-up and he was not given any minutes in Barcelona.
Against Mallorca, recovered from the strain which had kept him out only 72 hours earlier, Koke produced a magisterial display, which once again underlined why he is of such great importance for this Atlético Madrid team.
— Atlético Stats (@atletico_stats_) April 26, 2023
Duda hasta última hora por unas molestias, pero cumplió como el que más. Volvió Koke y volvió a la victoria el Atleti.
71 acciones con balón
56/64 pases completados
2 ocasiones creadas
Otro Atleti con @Koke6 pic.twitter.com/5p7XTTiX0q
Nominally a sole pivot in midfield, Koke was supported by Mario Hermoso stepping up when in possession and dictated the tempo throughout 78 impressive minutes. At times, it felt as though everything was flowing through him as Atlético turned defence into attack.
Only five men, who all played the full 90, had more touches than Koke, and he provided the stability that the team needed. He gave licence to Rodrigo de Paul and Thomas Lemar on either side to burst forward into more offensive positions.
What’s more was his leadership. Koke’s understated style can divide fans into those who believe that the team needs a more combative captain, but his composure was crucial. At 1-0 down he kept his team-mates calm, not rushing or feeling pressured on the ball, helping to slow the tempo and ushering Atlético back into control. It was a performance worthy of his experience and his status.
Yannick Carrasco’s game of two flanks and Pablo Maffeo’s showcase
One of the most intriguing battles of the night was that between Yannick Carrasco and Pablo Maffeo down the left wing. Though Carrasco had his moments in the first half, Maffeo undoubtedly emerged as the victor in this battle, as he won 10 out of 16 duels and made three successful tackles, all on the Belgian winger who was coming at him.
Maffeo was linked with a move to the Metropolitano in the summer but ended up staying with Mallorca, where he is rapidly growing a reputation as one of LaLiga’s most reliable right-backs. Against Carrasco, he kept up with the winger’s pace and anticipated his play to perfection.
That was why Carrasco was eventually forced to switch flanks and instead move to the right, where he had far more success against Jaume Costa. He eventually
#Atleti is missing #Llorente.— Emmanuel (@LigaLavo) April 26, 2023
#dePaul is not making the runs/pinning #Mallorca’s WB so that he can create space for #Molina wide as a result #Hermoso can’t switch play to right.
That’s the reason majority of #Atleti’s attacks is from left where Carrasco is struggling vs Maffeo. pic.twitter.com/q9nTGSc9X3
As Emmanuel of Partido a Partido Podcast points out above, part of Carrasco’s struggle was down to the fact that he had less support from midfield. The usual escape route for Carrasco involves a cross-field switch to Nahuel Molina down the righ. But unlike Marcos Llorente, Rodrigo de Paul was not advancing as far forward, and so Molina did not have the usual space to receive the ball.
Lemar, on the left of the midfield, provided little support for Carrasco. The pair exchanged 21 passes, but many came in frequent one-two moves and their average position was almost on top of one another — although that was slightly distorted by Lemar pushing on once Carrasco moved to the right.
Carrasco has been a key part of Atlético’s offensive game plan of late and even here, where adaptations were required, the 29-year-old continued to be pivotal. Ahead of a potential summer exit, it must be a concern for Simeone. As was shown in this game, finding a way to get the best out of Carrasco is non-negotiable because nobody else can do that same role.