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Atlético full of bark, but not as much bite, as preseason draws to a close

Diego Simeone’s attack has many creative options — but it lacks a killer at its tip.

Atletico de Madrid v Real Sociedad - Preseason Friendly Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid’s preseason ended Saturday night at Oracle Park in San Francisco, where Los Rojiblancos drew with Sevilla to wrap up the LaLiga EA Sports Summer Tour. Head coach Diego Simeone was very pleased with the performance from his tired team, and — having watched the entirety of the game from the press box — I understand where he’s coming from.

Atlético played its first two friendlies this preseason in South Korea, then made the long trek to Mexico for the Real Sociedad friendly before finally winding up in San Francisco. That is a lot of travel in less than two weeks. And Saturday night’s game on the San Francisco Bay showcased many of this Atleti side’s strengths.

The 1-1 draw — in which Simeone’s men initially fell behind due to a defensive mistake — also put Atleti’s weaknesses on display, and it remains to be seen how (or if) El Cholo repairs them.

Let’s start with the strengths. This version of Atlético de Madrid has a lot of dynamic and creative players that Simeone will not be able to field all at the same time — and that is a good problem to have.

Antoine Griezmann. Rodrigo de Paul. Memphis Depay. Ángel Correa. Yannick Carrasco (assuming he stays). Thomas Lemar (assuming he’s healthy). Koke tying everything together as he’s done for so many years. Pablo Barrios and probable preseason MVP Rodrigo Riquelme have shown flashes — as has Samuel Lino. This iteration of Atlético could be pretty fun to watch, in multiple configurations, as the season gets underway.

“The team created a lot of chances,” Simeone told the media Saturday night. “They are looking to attack and do damage.”

(By the way, João Félix concluded his preseason by playing exactly zero minutes, and he is now reportedly entertaining a move to Saudi Arabia. Can’t believe this is my life, and so on.)

Atlético piled up 20 shots against Sevilla, with many of the team’s best chances coming on the counterattack (much to opposing coach José Luis Mendilibar’s chagrin). But only six of those 20 shot attempts found the target, and goalkeeper Marko Dmitrović made several spectacular stops in the first half. It took Correa’s reflexes to earn Atleti a late draw, as he snapped up a deflected pass that bounced off César Azpilicueta and rifled it underneath Yassine Bounou.

During the season, Simeone is often a happy camper when Atlético generate a high number of high-quality chances. His happiness Saturday was probably enhanced by the fact that his worn-out team created great chances on a baseball field masquerading as a football pitch. But the fact remains that while Atleti found the net 70 times in LaLiga last year, only one player — Griezmann — tallied 15 goals. Los Rojiblancos did not have a “killer” 9 last season, and it does not yet look like they have one for this season.

Take Memphis, the potential difference-maker in Atlético’s attack. The Dutchman’s smooth ball-striking and promising metrics from last season make him as likely a candidate as any to be Atleti’s first 20-goal scorer since Luis Suárez in 2021. He scored an outrageous goal against Manchester City in Seoul, and he should have opened the scoring in Saturday’s friendly — but Dmitrović stonewalled him from point-blank range in the opening five minutes. In the previous friendly, against Real Sociedad in Monterrey, Memphis missed a penalty when an attempted panenka went awry (always an embarrassing moment).

Álvaro Morata toiled through a goalless preseason, as transfer rumors appeared to distract the Spain striker. Morata brings to the table several valuable auxiliary qualities that many overlook (Simeone doesn't) — but unfortunately, consistent finishing has never been his most valuable trait.

Correa has become a more composed, if not reliable, forward since Simeone finally moved him off the wing three years ago. Statistically, he has been good for one goal per every two shots on target since the start of 2021/22. But the World Cup winner isn’t assured consistent starts and, as someone who thrives off combinations in tight spaces rather than holding up play, is the kind of attacker Atlético already have a few times over.

Another feature to Atlético’s play this preseason was the expansion of a playing style that first took hold during the second half of last season. Initially, we called it “Cholismo 2.0,” but fans on social media have come up with an even-better term for it — “Cholo-Taka.”

Simeone has spoken about the importance of pressing higher up the pitch more regularly, a more-modern concept he has implemented with varying success since Atleti won the league three years ago. But he’s most notably placing an emphasis on playing out from the back, hoping to continue along the path laid down after the World Cup — during which Atlético were playing arguably the best football in Spain.

Center-backs like Mario Hermoso (lack of focus) and Axel Witsel (lack of athleticism) may not defend their position particularly well, but El Cholo recognizes their ability as passers who can steadily progress the play from one phase to the next — in Hermoso’s case, he can do it with one long ball. Players like Koke, de Paul, or the 5 that Atlético would like to add (Pierre-Emile Højbjerg) can also drop deeper and advance the ball in this system.

Azpilicueta and Çağlar Söyüncü have arrived this summer and received plenty of action during the preseason. Söyüncü has the look of a nasty, aggressive center-back who will help Atlético in the air, while Simeone on Saturday explained how Azpilicueta is already so important to Los Colchoneros.

“We need him. He competes, he’ll always give his best. It can be seen in his drive and his desire to help,” Simeone said. “This time, he helped in the second half, either as a right-sided center-back or as a wing-back.”

There also remain “old-school Cholismo” defenders in this squad — José Giménez, Stefan Savić, and Reinildo Mandava — but all three present different concerns. Giménez confirmed this week that he will miss at least the next six weeks of action with a leg injury, Reinildo is still recovering from an ACL tear suffered six months ago, and Savić is as likely to be brilliant as he is to make a back-breaking mistake.

The bad pitch at Oracle Park on Saturday bedeviled Savić, who got outmuscled by Rafa Mir trying to bring down a long ball and fell to the ground, allowing Mir to glide past him to open the scoring. Mistakes like these are magnified when, on the other end, Atlético need 18 shots to score one goal.

Getting a settled first-choice defense — and remember, Nahuel Molina didn’t play a single minute in preseason due to a foot injury — is essential for Atleti to capitalize on the end of last season and challenge for the title this year. As exciting as the Colchoneros’ combination play is expected to be, it will be the strength of their defense moving the needle in one direction or the other.

“We’ve played against teams with different characteristics,” Azpilicueta said Saturday in the mixed zone. “We’ve had important tests against a well-rounded team, against the winner of the Champions League, against a team that was fourth in LaLiga, and against the Europa League champion. This is what it’s all about — to prepare ourselves in the best conditions.”