Coming into this game, Atlético Madrid had not scored from open play at home for over a month and were without a win in four consecutive home games. Athletic Club posed a difficult opponent, despite their poor run of recent form, but it was the home team that ran out convincing winners in the end.
Angel Correa came into the side and produced some fine footwork to set up Saúl Ñíguez to score his first goal of the season, then doing so again in the second half only to set up his strike partner Álvaro Morata to double Atlético’s lead.
Simeone was forced into changes following injuries to the likes of João Félix and José María Gimenez, with the major change being in defence where a backline of Kieran Trippier, Felipe, Mario Hermoso and Renan Lodi lined up together for the first time. In attack, Diego Costa was rested with Angel Correa coming into the side.
Garitano recalled Unai Núñez in central defence whilst Yuri Berchiche returned from injury in the only two changes for Athletic as they looked to stick with the spine of a side which has failed to pick up results of late.
Little and large in attack
Atlético’s struggles for goals led to a change from Simeone, who tried out a new partnership in his pursuit of a solution. Following on from an impressive goalscoring cameo against Bayer Leverkusen in midweek, Morata was always likely to start but some were surprised to see Correa come into the side in place of Costa ahead of the likes of Vitolo. The diminutive Argentinean formed a typical little and large partnership with Morata and it was one that worked wonders, producing the best performance from Atlético’s number 10 in a long time.
However, perhaps unlike a typical partnership of this type, it was not about Morata providing knock-downs to Correa. Rather, it was about the movement between the two. With the ball deep, Correa would position himself close by to Morata, drawing Athletic’s two central defenders close together in a narrow position and opening up spaces between the central defenders and the full-backs. Once the ball was then spread wide, usually to overlapping full-backs, Correa would look to exploit these gaps by moving into the channels and providing a passing option.
For both of Atlético’s goals, this was the case. Particularly in the second, where Morata continued his run through as a poacher in the six-yard box, capitalising on the shift towards the right to drift off of his marker with midfield runners coming through to distract the central defenders who were left dazzled by Correa’s movement. With accurate dribbling and crossing, it was a much-improved performance from Correa, who showed the kind of movement and energy that has been missing in Atlético’s attack in recent weeks.
Lemar in Félix’s role
There was also an improved performance from Thomas Lemar, the Frenchman who took up Félix’s role as the free-roaming wide man. Rather than being limited to the left as is usually the case, he was given freedom to drift around in the final third, looking to take up the role as one of the more advanced players behind the front two. Whilst this was not as clear cut as Félix’s typical role, still leaning towards the left flank, Lemar did show signs of improvements in his display.
This showed in how involved he was in play, receiving a total of 19 passes, more than in any of his last eight outings. Moving into central positions, he became more involved and provided more of an outlet. It was also aided by his more ambitious movement, which presented a far greater threat and added a third dimension to the Atlético attack in behind Correa and Morata. This was shown perfectly in the below chance, when he carried the ball centrally, played into Morata, who passed to Koke to chip the ball over the top into Lemar’s run into the space that he had identified before making the initial pass.
He was also more active defensively, making two tackles and one interception, more defensive contributions than in any other appearance this season. Such a work rate alongside his more impressive offensive performance could well have made an impression on Simeone who will have to consider Lemar’s role in the next few weeks before Félix returns with the likes of Vitolo likely to be given an opportunity with several midweek fixtures coming up.
Athletic’s set-piece woes
It has now been 199 corners, dating back to the opening day of 2018/19, since Athletic Club converted from a corner. For a side featuring the likes of Iñigo Martínez and Aritz Aduriz, that is an unforgivable statistic. Athletic did come close, with Martínez’s header in the opening minutes accounting for 0.15 xG, but not enough as they had seven corners and failed to produce another major threat after that.
It is due to the system which they deploy and their tactical set-up which makes it easy for well-organised defences to protect themselves from. Up against Atlético, Simeone has his team well drilled in how to defend such scenarios. Athletic used a T shape to line-up their players before breaking into the box as the corner came in, which should provide width and wide-ranging runs to spread and split the opposition defence, but in practice, the players ended up ball-watching and grouping together, as can be seen below.
Particularly when the cross went to the far post, as was often the case, this led to several players being removed from the game whilst others waited on the edge of the box. However, the major problem for Athletic lies in that it makes it easy to defend against. A flat defensive line such as the Atlético one here allows rivals to set themselves up perfectly to challenge aerially. With so many set pieces repeating the same routine, Athletic’s threat from set-pieces came early on and Atlético quickly adapted to prevent such threats.
Atlético’s defensive resilience
In addition to defending set-pieces well, Atlético denied Athletic opportunities to break through. Despite the fact that Athletic were in the game and had their fair share of possession throughout many phases of the game, they did not convert it into real clear cut chances. Their xG of 0.82 came largely from set-pieces and hopeful efforts from distance, thanks in part to the performance of Atlético’s defensive set-up. What was perhaps surprising, therefore, was the fact that this was the first time that the back four had played together due to injuries which had ruled out the regulars.
Jan Oblak’s incredible save in the opening minutes was a key factor but so was the defensive performance, recording the fourth-highest defensive duel success rate of the season at 66%. This was in part down to the rigid structure which Simeone set up with, with the full-backs playing their usual marauding role alongside the composed Felipe and Hermoso, playing in his preferred positional as a left-sided central defender having been used at left-back in some recent fixtures.
Additional support came through the middle as Thomas Partey provided cover in a deeper than usual midfield role. Only twice this season has the Ghanian made more defensive duels in one fixture, showing how he contributed. Dropping in to become almost a third central defender when Iker Muniain broke through to a central position, he helped to nullify Athletic attacks before they even reached a rigid backline.
Simeone faced no choice but to make some changes to his team and they worked well. All in all, this was Atlético’s most complete performance of the season. Defensively solid and offensively threatening with a very different kind of threat to what Costa has posed in recent weeks, it was a promising display. Athletic performed better than in many of their latest away fixtures but continued to struggle in the final third, particularly with set pieces. A convincing victory for Atlético Madrid was a fair reflection of this display, particularly given the stand-out performances of Correa and Lemar.
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