Atlético Madrid came into the 2018-19 campaign with high expectations, and rightfully so in many respects. Los Rojiblancos finished second in LaLiga last term, and captured their third UEFA Europa League trophy with a dominant victory over Marseille in the final. Promising additions were made in the attack with Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins this past summer, but the season did not go according to plan right away for manager Diego Simeone.
September produced disappointing results in league play, including a loss at Celta Vigo and a home draw versus Eibar in consecutive weeks. Atlético had lost a step on Barcelona and Real Madrid at the top of the table, and the UEFA Champions League group stage was set to make things a bit more difficult with additional matches. However, this past week was an outstanding demonstration of how Simeone can manage his squad effectively, even when outside influences are working against him.
Since those dropped points against Eibar at the Wanda Metropolitano, Atlético have been on an impressive run. The squad are unbeaten in their last six matches across all competitions, including victories in five. They enter the international break only a point off first-place Sevilla in the league table, and confidence is certainly at a high level.
The remarkable aspect is that some of the team’s best players are not at top form, meaning performances can still reach new heights in the coming weeks.
Martins is still working to integrate himself into the line-up, and striker Antoine Griezmann has only netted two league goals thus far. Diego Costa has yet to score a LaLiga goal in their eight games, and is now dealing with a thigh injury. Los Colchoneros have scored only nine goals through eight matches, but superior defensive work continues to shine and Simeone has set his team up well for success.
Against Belgian side Club Brugge in the Champions League, centre-backs Diego Godín and José Giménez frustrated the opposition with sharp positioning and excellent communication. Ultimately, their opponents were limited to just one shot on-target. Wide play was fantastic, as Lemar and Saúl Ñiguez created space and caused issues for Club Brugge’s back-line.
The plan was a bit different versus Real Betis on Sunday, and Simeone utilised the type of plan that has become a trademark for Atlético. Operating with a 4-4-2 formation, the home side had absolutely no problem giving away possession to the visitors. Betis enjoyed almost 65 percent possession throughout the contest, but were unable to register a shot on-target. Chances were suffocated in the middle of the pitch, as both Koke and Rodri turned in stellar performances.
Lucas Hernández and Godín were excellent in central defence, making life easy for goalkeeper Jan Oblak at the back. One of the best keepers in the game today, it is amazing how often he can seemingly become anonymous in the midst of Atlético’s gripping defensive work. At the other end, Griezmann and Nikola Kalinić were struggling up front, and Simeone recognised what needed to be changed. His decisions would turn one point at home into three.
The Argentine tactician introduced Ángel Correa and Thomas Partey in the second half, adding fresh legs and significant skill to the line-up. The benefits of this decision would be witnessed in the 74th minute, as the two combined for the winning goal against Betis. Correa won the ball in midfield, and a slick one-two passing combination with Thomas led to his decisive strike. This was the kind of victory that fans have come to know quite well for Atlético, and it is all about making the most of your opportunities in the final third.
Madrid may not have created a multitude of chances, but sometimes all it takes is the right movements at the right time to deliver a victory. The club’s defence is their greatest strength, evidenced this season by only allowing four goals through eight games (lowest amount in La Liga). But Simeone understands how to get the most from his attack also, with his substitutions and line-up selections providing excellent recent results.
Atlético Madrid have been crafted very much in the mould of manager Diego Simeone as a player. A tough defensive midfielder during his days on the pitch, his squad now have adopted that mindset and set out to stifle the opposition. They have been quite successful with this philosophy. However, Simeone also knows when to attack and his in-game modifications can be a truly great advantage.
By: Roy Emanuel