Atlético Madrid’s rollercoaster campaign continued as they played for the first time since beating Rayo Vallecano 7-0 some 19 days ago, this time suffering a 3-0 reverse at Mestalla as Valencia ran the Colchoneros ragged.
The game was over almost before it began as Valencia forward Hugo Duro scored on five minutes and then added another before the break, taking advantage of some lax marking and weak tackling to put himself in a strong position to beat Jan Oblak. A third came in the second half, when Javi Guerra scored a stunning strike to seal the win for the hosts.
Here are four talking points we can take from the game.
1. Axel Witsel and Stefan Savić can’t play together
This performance had more than its fair share of defensive horror shows. In particular, Axel Witsel and Stefan Savić seemed keen to remind anyone watching that their combined 66 years are why they aren’t quite up to the pace of LaLiga.
Duro and later Guerra’s pace — not to mention energy — in the Valencia attack was the polar opposite of the two defenders, who won just one of six duels between them in the first 45 minutes. They failed to even register a single tackle during the full 90 minutes.
Witsel has been dropped into defence by Diego Simeone, who has said that he sees him offering more to the team there. But in truth, it’s because his lack of speed means he is unable to play anywhere but the sweeping role. Even then, he struggles to keep up.
Savić on the other hand, maintains his aggression of years gone past — only now, attackers just skip past him. Before being taken off at half-time, he was dribbled past twice by Valencia attackers.
It may seem unfair to single out this duo, rather than the terrible Mario Hermoso, but Hermoso’s floundering is nothing new. It’s something we see time and time again, and most often of all when the rest of the defence around him is shambolic, as was the case at Mestalla. Hermoso picked up a needless yellow card and lost a duel he should’ve done better with for the second goal.
César Azpilicueta once again stood out as the only bright spark in the back five, with Rodrigo Riquelme struggling on the left (more on that later on in this column).
The return of Josema Giménez is a positive, one of very few, but even he looked a little rusty after his spell on the sidelines which made this his first appearance of the season for the club.
After two clean sheets, it was fair to say that nobody saw a thrashing at Mestalla coming. But this defensive unit, the same as that which kept a clean sheet against Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano, looked a hot mess.
2. Thomas Lemar’s season is over, one way or another
Another chance for Thomas Lemar, another injury. He was stretchered off shortly before half-time with what the club reported to be a serious Achilles injury. While further tests will be required to determine the extent of the injury, he is almost certain to be sidelined for a matter of months, rather than days or weeks.
Thomas Lemar was stretchered off. After a first examination, medical services fear a serious injury to his Achilles tendon. Pending tests to confirm a definitive diagnosis.— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) September 16, 2023
As such, Lemar will add to the 49 matches he has missed due to injury or illness since joining Atlético de Madrid. It comes after he had started the first two games of the season and, with Koke and Rodrigo de Paul both unavailable, this was seen as a golden chance for the 27-year-old.
Lemar had been selected ahead of Saúl Ñíguez, who has been in good form, and in place of giving Riquelme a midfield role. Even if Lemar is back fit before the end of the season, he will likely have to climb his way back up the pecking order behind a number of players who have had months to prove themselves.
Now, the Frenchman is back to square one, and Simeone faces a selection headache. Atlético now face a trip to Lazio on Tuesday with Saúl, Marcos Llorente, and Pablo Barrios as the only fit midfielders.
3. Rodrigo Riquelme needs time as a left wing-back
It was to the surprise of nobody that Atlético would miss Yannick Carrasco in the very first game after he departed for Saudi Arabia. Cholo Simeone had spent much of the pre-season practicing with Riquelme as a wing-back, primarily down the right flank where he has had more game time in the past, to adjust him to the role.
Riquelme got his first start of the campaign at Mestalla, operating on the left as Carrasco’s replacement, selected ahead of Javi Galán. Galán has been missing in action since he arrived, with numerous reports indicating Simeone is far from convinced by the ex-Celta Vigo defender’s talents. This decision to select Riquelme further backs that up.
Defensively, the 23-year-old looked out of his depth. Albeit with the challenges of the defensive line he was playing alongside, he won three of his six ground duels, losing his only aerial duel, and was caught out of position frequently.
On the ball, Riquelme offered little to nothing. He attempted three dribbles and lost possession on all three occasions. He delivered one successful cross, his only pass into the final third, and registered only nine other successful passes in the 45 minutes he was on the field.
This isn’t to say Riquelme should never play in the role again. You could argue he has youth and a lack of experience in his favour, and Simeone is likely to give him another chance. The decision to haul him off at half-time, with the damage done, seemed more a gesture of recognising Riquelme’s own mistakes and a matter of damage limitation, rather than to call him out. Barrios went through similar at times last season.
When Galán came on in the same role, initially to replace Lemar with his injury, he looked more assured. He recovered possession four times, winning five of his six duels, and completed his only attempted dribble. He entered the game in a different context and failed to add cutting edge in attack, but he certainly seemed the safer option.
4. Colchoneros should not lose perspective
As disappointing a result as this one is for Atlético fans to take, there is a need for some context and for recognition of a concern throughout the summer — which is that this squad lacks depth.
You could easily argue that Simeone was without six players who would be in his strongest XI: Nahuel Molina, Josema Giménez, Reinildo, Koke, Rodrigo de Paul and Memphis Depay. Molina and Giménez came off the bench after their own injury lay-offs, but by that point, the game had already been lost.
It should speak volumes that even Valencia, who have been dreadfully managed off the field, named a bench with four players more than Atleti. After Simeone used his five substitutions, he was left with Samuel Lino, who did not train for much of this week, and two goalkeepers. Hardly a wide range of choices for the coach.
This result was one which brought Atleti back down to earth, and with a mighty bump. The historic 7-0 thrashing of Rayo Vallecano last time out was a stark contrast to this debacle, but it also served as a reminder of just how important depth is.
On their day, and with their key men fit, Atlético can compete for the title. Without some key players and relying on the overpaid B string, you begin to understand why Simeone has lost his hair.