Atlético Madrid sealed a nail-biting win over Rayo Vallecano with a late goal from Memphis Depay securing a 2-1 victory to help the team’s cause in LALIGA.
Reinildo Mandava scored his first goal for the club to open the scoring late in the first half with a back-post header, but the lead was short-lived as Álvaro García scored an impressive equaliser for Rayo. It wasn’t until the death, right on 90 minutes, when Atlético found a way through again as Memphis broke free to get onto the end of Antoine Griezmann’s cross into the box before poking home for his third goal in as many games.
Here are four of the key talking points from the game.
1. An incomplete rotation
Diego Simeone made seven changes to the team that beat Valencia on Sunday night, with only Memphis, Reinildo, Jan Oblak and Pablo Barrios keeping their places in the line-up. In came several players who have spent most of the season on the substitutes’ bench or in the physio’s room.
That was always likely to be a challenge, but perhaps even Simeone underestimated how much this XI might struggle against Rayo. The 7-0 victory earlier in the season at Vallecas was in complete contrast to the struggle that this game provided, as Atlético had to use every drop of energy to take the three points.
Simeone was forced to call upon his key men from the bench and thus missed the opportunity to give them a prolonged rest ahead of the Madrid derby at the weekend. Before the hour mark, Griezmann, Nahuel Molina, Rodrigo de Paul, and Samuel Lino were all thrown on, and Koke soon followed. They may have saved some minutes in their legs, but were still needed in demanding circumstances.
It was also a reminder of what Simeone has available to him. The disjointed display could be put down to the changes, but the sheer lack of quality from several players was more to blame. Where Memphis and Ángel Correa added impetus against Sevilla, the first appearance from either was when Memphis finally stayed onside to score on the stroke of 90 minutes.
2. Arthur Vermeeren’s debut
Teenager Arthur Veremeeren was one of those to come into the side, clearly having made a strong first impression on Simeone during his first week training for the Colchoneros. His debut would last only 45 minutes, but that is not unusual for a youngster coming into a Simeone team — he is the youngest in 11 years and the first 18-year-old to do so since Lucas Hernández nearly a decade ago.
The Belgian was operating on the right of the midfield three as an interior midfielder, with Pablo Barrios in the pivot and Saúl Ñíguez on the left. It was a nervy debut from the 18-year-old, who had clearly had little time on the training pitch alongside his new teammates and looked a little out of tune, as is to be expected.
1 - At 18 years and 358 days old, Arthur Vermeeren is the youngest player to make his LaLiga debut for Atlético de Madrid in the starting XI since José María Giménez in September 2013 against Almería (18 years and 237 days). Future. pic.twitter.com/5owpZXVZc3— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 31, 2024
Vermeeren completed 19 of his 26 attempted passes, on the low side for completion rate compared to his usual stats, but again reflecting a lack of understanding with his new colleagues. There were plenty of positives, though, as he positioned well and tracked back to cover Marcos Llorente on the right and seemed to show some excellent tactical understanding.
Patience is the key with a talent like Vermeeren, and it will be intriguing to see him play alongside some more experienced players. Saúl produced another poor display and offered little in support, while Barrios was impressive but is only 20 himself.
3. Mario Hermoso in the middle of a back three
Part of the changes to the team involved playing Reinildo and Hermoso together, with Hermoso returning to the side in the central position in the back three to replace the injured Josema Giménez. On paper, it was an intriguing option, allowing the Spaniard to operate almost like a quarterback in the deepest role with his strong distribution skills.
In reality, it didn’t quite work like that. Hermoso’s one-footedness meant that Atlético’s distribution became incredibly predictable, with a swing of his left foot sending every ball long to the right flank, and he continually rushed into passes as the press came. He struggled without the outlet of a wide escape, instead feeding over-hit passes into midfield.
Hermoso’s defensive game is a high-risk one that sees him regularly step up and follow his man, leaving a gap behind. That’s part of why he has enjoyed his best form in a back three, rather than a back four. In the middle of a three, and particularly with a player of Axel Witsel’s pace alongside him, those kind of gaps could be fatal.
Next to him, Reinildo produced another strong performance. His first goal for Atlético de Madrid capped his second start for the club since his knee injury almost a year ago, and he looked assured and fit. He also won more duels and more tackles than anyone else on the field. Hermoso’s passing may have been off, but perhaps that came from looking over his own shoulder.
4. Profe Ortega’s farewell
This week may not have seen any major exits from Atlético, only Çaglar Söyüncü, but it did see the imminent departure of fitness coach Óscar Ortega confirmed. Affectionately known as Profe Ortega, he has been with the club since Simeone joined in 2011 and has been at the very heart of El Cholo’s success. His pre-season hill runs are infamous.
Ortega confirmed Wednesday that he will be leaving the club when his contract expires this summer. It comes as rumours swirled of a complete breakdown in his relationship with Simeone, and is not unsurprising given the number of muscle injuries that have hit the squad in recent years and the lack of fitness in the first team at crucial points of the season.
❝Es una etapa muy bonita pero es un buen momento para terminarla❞— Atlético de Madrid (@Atleti) January 30, 2024
— Óscar Ortega pic.twitter.com/hMXo70lk6D
Even so, the Atleti fans wanted to pay their own tribute to Ortega, and players like Griezmann, Koke and de Paul were only too happy to encourage a homage. At half-time, Ortega went behind the goal to collect a loose ball and had his name chanted and he was applauded.
De Paul, Griezmann y Koke pidiendo un homenaje para el Profe Ortega. Familia.— (@finallyxpablo) January 31, 2024
Even in spite of the torturous training routines and a supposed fall-out behind the scenes, Ortega clearly remains a popular figure in the dressing room, as these heavyweights showed. Ortega will still have some months left at the club before his final farewell, but his presence down the touchline on a matchday at the Metropolitano will be missed.