Atlético Madrid’s stuttering continued at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday as Celta Vigo held them to a 0-0 draw, extending the home team’s run without a win to three games in all competitions.
The La Liga fixture was a crucial one as Celta Vigo looked to get back to winning ways whilst Atlético were keen to get back on track, fresh off the bounce from a last-minute equaliser against Juventus in midweek after an intense battle in the Champions League.
After the exertions of facing the Serie A champions, Simeone understandably looked to make changes. Felipe, midweek hero Héctor Herrera and Ángel Correa all came into the side as Stefan Savić, Thomas Partey and Thomas Lemar made way. What was perhaps most surprising was that the main centre-forward alongside Diego Costa for much of the tie was Correa, rather than João Félix.
Escribá was forced into changes as Jorge Sáenz and Fran Beltrán served suspensions for their red cards against Granada. Néstor Araújo and Okay Yokuslu came into the side, with Rafinha also coming in for Brais Méndez for his second debut having returned to the club in the summer.
A wasted asset
Without any doubt, Atlético’s biggest threat from the first whistle to the last came down the flanks. In particular, more so in the second half than the first, it was specifically Renan Lodi. The Brazilian left-back was afforded the entirety of the left flank to run riot, with his pace and dribbling being a major threat. With five of his six dribbles down the wing being completed and also putting five crosses into the box. Hugo Mallo struggled to control him frequently, with Brais Mendez coming on with almost the sole intention of man-marking him for the final 17 minutes of the encounter.
Unlike in some past fixtures where Lodi’s positioning and first touch has let him down, he was a threat without any of the vulnerabilities that he had shown before. With two shots, including his first on target in an Atlético shirt, he exploited having the freedom of the whole left flank to really push on, knowing that Koke would drop back in to cover him if needed. The result was a performance more like a winger than a full-back, and it helped him to excel.
On the other flank, Trippier was an exceptional threat in the first half. Whilst he faded in the second half, his four first-half crosses provided a major threat and it initially took Celta Vigo a while to learn how to cut down the space of both full-backs. Their narrow set-up left them vulnerable to the two full-backs, with Trippier, in particular, looking to quickly shift the ball across to the other flank if he could not progress.
The lack of a poacher
No side has had more shots without a goal in La Liga this season than the 20 that Atlético registered on Saturday, but the real issue lay not in the shots that they took, but rather the chances that they never got on the end of. This was key to how Atlético failed to capitalise on the threat that was provided by Lodi and Trippier down the flanks.
Three of Lodi’s crosses had almost the exact same path, as is shown in the below example. The cross was perfectly positioned, in behind the defence ready for on-running attackers but far enough away from Rúben Blanco to intercept. However, on none of these occasions was there a runner anticipating the cross. In this example, three Atlético players make their way into the box, but as Lodi breaks past his rival, Félix and Saúl both slow their runs, whilst Diego Costa cannot quite get on the end of the cross at the near post.
When Álvaro Morata was introduced from the bench as a substitute, his first touch was getting on the end of a Lodi cross for the first time in the whole match. There was not enough contact and the ball went wide. Without a poacher, or at least a natural winger looking to attack the far post, rather than makeshift wide man Saúl, Atlético produced plenty of opportunities to put the ball in the box, but whenever they did so, there was no-one there to finish them off.
An organised defence
For all of Atlético Madrid’s offensive flaws, Celta Vigo deserve credit for their magnificent set-up, which alongside some inspired goalkeeping, helped them to a point. In 2018/19, Celta only won more of their defensive duels four times than the 67.8% registered against Atlético, and that was in part thanks to their impressive organisation which denied Atlético Madrid the chance to find space to exploit and instead forced them into basic errors and possession losses through desperation.
As Lodi’s influence on the game grew and he kept finding space down the flank, Escribá was quick to react. Knowing that Denis Suárez was not providing Mallo with the defensive cover he needed, Méndez was brought on to man-mark him. He effectively stood out from the structure, given the sole task of preventing Lodi from finding space down the flank and he did so fairly effectively. Even when Lodi did find space and receive the ball, Méndez was immediately on the scene to engage and press.
Also essential was how Escribá refused to commit all of his men into defence. Iago Aspas remained as the key offensive outlet, rarely dropping deeper than the halfway line, while Stanislav Lobotka had the role of pressing high. In this way, Celta looked to slow Atlético’s transition, preventing them from attacking on the counter and allowing the visitors to regain their structure and rigid shape. This was essential in Escribá’s approach of defending from the front to secure a solid defensive performance.
Félix’s lost role
In contrast to the structure of Celta Vigo’s set-up, Félix was given a role with immense freedom. Alternating with Correa in partnering Costa in attack, the Portugal international was the one who tended to stick to the left, but as his action map below shows, he very rarely stuck to that position and enjoyed great freedom. However, rather than using this to his advantage, his influence on the game was weak as he cut a lost figure.
The below action map reflects how Félix was all over the field, in comparison to his performance for Portugal against Lithuania earlier this month, where he played the same role on the left flank and alternating as a central striker. In a more rigid Portugal structure, he was far more active, being involved in 72 actions, rather than 46 against Celta Vigo, with an 18% higher success ratio. Without a set role, Félix continues to struggle to find his feet in fixtures and cannot influence play, though he is increasingly dropping deep to help out. The result is a lost figure who contributes little, with Simeone again taking him off in the second half with his side looking for a winner.
Looking for the positives, Félix made more of a defensive contribution than in any other of his Atlético appearances to date. He made four interceptions, more than in all of his other Atlético appearances combined, and was involved in five defensive duels, coming out in top on two of them. For comparison, he had only once made three defensive duels in his past fixtures since joining in the summer, with all of his other appearances having even less. This goes to show that whilst Félix’s adaptation is a very slow process, he is certainly beginning to show signs of elements that will be pleasing Simeone, even if they are not the ones that fans are hoping for.
This analysis reflects that Atlético Madrid had three points within their grasp at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano. Their failure to offer an in-form centre-forward meant that they could not capitalise on the good work that was being conducted down the flanks. In Lodi and Trippier, Simeone boasts two of the best, if not the best, full-backs in La Liga, but there is nobody getting on the end of the chances that they are creating. Celta Vigo also deserve credit for their set-up, using their discipline to their advantage to nullify the threat of Atlético. A little more ambition could have gone a long way for the visitors, registering just five shots, but a point is a good result for them and neither side can complain about the end result.
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