Atlético Madrid secured a nail-biting 1-0 win over Granada at the Estadio Nuevo de los Cármenes to record a first away victory in LALIGA since October and only a third this season.
The winning goal came from Álvaro Morata with a tight offside decision going his way — just as it didn’t go the way of Saúl Ñíguez, as his attempt was ruled out by some rather fine lines drawn by the VAR team later in the second half.
Here are four of the key talking points from the game.
1. Rotations make the priority clear
With one eye on the Thursday night clash with Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, it was evident that Diego Simeone wasn’t willing to take any risks. He looked to rotate his team by resting several key players from the starting line-up he put out.
In defence, Josema Giménez was given a rest (wise given his injury record), but the eye-catching changes came in midfield, where Samuel Lino and Rodrigo Riquelme continued to rotate but where Koke and Rodrigo de Paul were left on the bench. Marcos Llorente and Pablo Barrios were brought in to replace them.
By prioritising the cup game, Simeone may simply have been making a judgement call based on the quality of the opposition, knowing that Granada are not the toughest opponents and Sevilla will provide a much more difficult test.
However, the changes made did raise some question marks. If these are the changes made, when can Antoine Griezmann earn a real break? The same can be said for Llorente, who has been filling in at right-wing-back and now as a midfielder. They will need a rest at some point too.
2. How good can Álvaro Morata be?
By scoring here, Morata scored his 13th goal of the LALIGA campaign and his 19th in all competitions this season. With those numbers, he has reached the same goal tally as he had for all of 2022/23 in only just over half as many appearances (19 to 36 last year).
Simeone sat him down for a long chat in pre-season, and it appears to be working wonders as the Spanish international is flowing with confidence. That was evident in his well-taken goal. So many times before we have seen him snatch at such a chance and miss, but not on this occasion.
Morata is now only one goal from matching his record tally of 20 goals in all competitions (in 2020/21 with Juventus and in 2016/17 with Real Madrid) and it seems inevitable that he will reach the landmark sooner rather than later.
Atlético had been crying out for a world-class number nine for years, and finally found one within their own ranks. This performance, while not spectacular, eye-catching or one that will go viral on social media, is exactly the kind of game where Morata in this form can make the difference between a trophy-less season and a successful one.
3. Is there any hope with Stefan Savić?
One of the changes to the team included the return of Stefan Savić to the line-up, coming only days after it became very clear that Simeone ranks him low down his list of central defenders — when he preferred César Azpilicueta off the bench against Real Madrid.
In Granada, Savić once again looked a liability, as he won less than half of his duels and picked up a yellow card needlessly for squaring up to Lucas Boyé. Once again, the 33-year-old veteran let the team down with his own self-discipline, as has become a pattern in recent months.
Savic Savic-ing like Savic should.— AU (@feelAtleti) January 22, 2024
Savić should be coming into this team with his experience and leading the backline alongside Axel Witsel and Mario Hermoso, but he didn’t do so. His body can no longer handle the physicality of his game and his pace, the little he had, is long gone.
What is bizarre is that Atlético seem to be showing little sign of movement in the transfer market in this position. In fact, some reports suggest that sporting director Andrea Berta believes that the squad needs trimming down in that area. Çağlar Söyüncü may be the man to make way, but even then, there is more fat to be cut and a big need for a replacement.
4. Pablo Barrios as the lone pivot
Every Colchonero would have been delighted to see Barrios back on the team-sheet in the starting line-up for Atlético after his knee injury in late November, and he slotted right in by playing as the holding midfielder in the Koke role.
He played 80 of the 90 minutes and looked comfortable in terms of his fitness, and also on the ball. He completed 93% of his 43 attempted passes, and completed a match high of nine passes into the final third alongside one successful dribble.
Few players can progress the ball like Barrios when in possession, and that was key to enabling Atleti to have rapid counter-attacks on the break and also to find a way through the Granada defensive unit when they sat in a low block.
It seems clear that the holding pivot role is not the 20-year-old midfielder’s strongest, but he does the job well just like Koke does as his senior team-mate. Defensively, he did what was needed and protected the back line on a night when they were not tested in depth.