Atletico Madrid showed lots of spirit and attacking intent in Friday’s 2-2 La Liga draw at Valencia, but also startling defensive issues which could be costly in Tuesday’s Champions League last 16 first leg against Liverpool at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano.
Atletico’s early dominance at Mestalla brought summer signing Marcos Llorente’s first goal for the club. Then when Valencia’s Gabriel Paulista equalised at a corner, Simeone’s team almost immediately hit back via Thomas Partey’s rocket to deservedly lead 2-1 at half-time.
Valencia were much the better team after the break however, and their dominance was rewarded when Geoffrey Kondogbia made it 2-2 by steering home Dani Parejo’s free-kick.
The days of El Cholo’s men grabbing a lead and then settling in to calmly see out the game are gone. On Friday they twice did very well to get ahead, with the first goal carefully constructed by stand-in attackers Angel Correa and Vitolo, and the second a fine solo effort from Thomas.
Only to both times throw away their advantage through careless defending at a set-piece. For the first, Saul Niguez allowed Maxi Gomez way too much room to take down a corner and fire the ball across the six yard box. On the second, Llorente was easily outmuscled by Kondogbia, who had another fairly simple finish from close range.
That took Atletico to eight goals conceded at set-pieces in 24 La Liga games so far this season [of 17 conceded in total]. Last season it was just five at dead-ball situations over the 38 games, and only three throughout 2017/18.
“We have different players now with different characteristics,” said Simeone at Friday’s post-game news conference, when asked by the Independent to explain this new set-piece weakness. “So just like we now attack in a different way, we defend in a different way too.”
That was an admirably frank response, with the “different characteristics” of his new players apparently not including sticking tight to their men and losing concentration when the ball is in the air.
The most obvious squad difference is that Atletico are missing previous defensive leader Diego Godin, now at Inter Milan, who so often made sure he got his head to any ball coming near the six yard box. Others to move on in recent years like Lucas Hernandez and Raul Garcia did not lose many one on one personal battles either.
Torres embarrassed three different Atletico left-backs with his pace and tricks during a scintillating personal second half. Simeone replaced starter Renan Lodi soon after the break, switching Santiago Arias across from the right for a while, and finally putting midfielder Saul Niguez back to try and stop the bleeding. On the other wing Gaya’s sprints in behind were unhindered by either Arias or replacement Sime Vrsaljko.
“Lodi was on a yellow card and we were afraid he’d be sent off,” Simeone said when asked about his left-back issues. “Then Arias had no left foot to attack. With Saul we had a better chance going forward. We knew he might suffer [against Torres], but we were looking for something.”
Whether Simeone was really thinking of attacking when he kept rejigging his defence is a moot point. Both full back areas are a huge concern ahead of Tuesday, considering Liverpool’s strength down the flanks. Kieran Trippier will not be around to renew acquaintances with Mo Salah or Trent Alexander-Arnold either, as the England international misses both legs due to a recent groin operation.
It was not all negatives ahead of Liverpool though, as Simeone and his players were keen to point out afterwards. Valencia are unbeaten at Mestalla in La Liga this season, with a win over Barcelona and draw with Real Madrid since 2020 began. So a 2-2 draw, which kept Atletico ahead of Los Che in the top four race was something.
“Valencia are very strong here, they have not lost at home all season, and tonight they came back twice,” Simeone said “I am leaving with very good feelings. We put in a huge effort, and when you do that you are annoyed not to win, but it was a great game.”
Atletico had caused Albert Celades’ generally well organised team more problems than either Barca or Madrid. Correa continued his well timed good form, and has now either scored or assisted six of his team’s last seven La Liga goals. The Argentina international was linked with a move to Liverpool back in 2007, and almost joined Inter Milan last summer, but has stepped up especially with €127 million teenager Joao Felix injured through recent weeks.
Another positive for Atletico was a commanding midfield performance from Thomas, at the base of a midfield diamond. The Ghana international has pretty much now replaced club captain Koke as Simeone’s most important on-pitch general. His goal was all his own work, winning the ball back via a high press, then carrying it forward before powering a low shot to the net from 20 yards.
Llorente’s first goal for Atletico will have helped the former Real Madrid midfielder’s confidence, and he is likely to have a right-sided role on Tuesday helping Arias to deal with both Andy Robertson and Sadio Mane.
Centre-forward Alvaro Morata looked relatively sharp and fit after entering midway through the second half, for his first appearance since straining a muscle in the derbi at the Santiago Bernabeu two weeks ago. Morata should now start on Tuesday, while on the bench might well be Diego Costa, who has finally returned to full training following a long recovery from a back operation in November.
Thomas also echoed the positive vibes when speaking in the Mestalla mixed zone ahead of taking a late night plane back to Madrid – with the rearranged Friday evening kick-off giving Atletico 24 hours extra rest ahead of Tuesday’s game.
“We know the mistakes we made today, that we have been making, and where we must improve,” he said. “In the Champions League we must go out to win, to go for the game, to press well, stay strong defensively, and hope we can have more fortune with the ball. It seems like always our opponents are the favourites, it has been that way for us for a long time. What happens on the pitch is the most important, not what people are saying. They are playing well, but we are all the same on the pitch, and we will go for them.”
Simeone’s side have often overcome the odds on the biggest European nights – knocking out supposed betters Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Arsenal through his time in charge. But that was a different team with different characteristics. Liverpool coaches, players and fans will not have been overly concerned by what they saw at Mestalla on Friday night.