Villarreal’s 2-0 La Liga victory over Atlético Madrid on Sunday night was a classic case of a well-assembled team who all know their jobs perfectly, as they beat a squad full of talented players who obviously don’t fit together well.
The first game of the renamed Civitas Metropolitano stadium this season was followed by ugly clashes between some members of the Atletico squad and their supposed supporters, in a sign of the tensions around the club. Fans are expecting more action before the transfer window closes.
With no injuries or suspensions for the first time in 2022, Atletico coach Diego Simeone made just one change from the squad that beat Getafe 3-0 in the opening weekend (Yannick Carrasco took over from Saul Negues at left back). It meant a powerful squad, including Antoine Griezmann, Rodrigo de Paul and Jose Maria Jimenez.
Alvaro Morata and Joao Felix started the attack again but barely got involved in the first half as Villarreal, very comfortable in Unai Emery’s fine style, dominated the first half. Atletico couldn’t move forward, even with former Borussia Dortmund midfielder Axel Witsel, who has settled into a new role in the midfield of three defences.
When he was still goalless past the hour mark, Simeone had to change something. And he changed the lot – within six minutes, Griezmann, De Paul, Matthews Cunha and Angel Correa entered the fray. Both Correa and Kunha almost scored within seconds of their arrival, but amidst all the games and going it was Villarreal who took the lead when he got the wrong pass from new right-back Nahuel Molina worth €20m (£16.9m, $20m). The teenage winger gives Beno the time and space to choose his place.
Atletico started pushing the players forward and almost equalized, but Atletico lost all semblance of form – something unusual for Simeone’s side. Molina then capped off a terrible first home appearance by knocking out Villarreal substitute Alex Baena to waste time. Atletico were a crowd, and no one seemed to know what position he should be in. Unsurprisingly, Gerard Moreno confirmed Villarreal’s deserved win by beating Jan Oblak after a four-to-two break against a battered back line.
“It was a tough match with few chances that could have gone either way. Whoever makes a mistake can lose,” Simeone said. “And they took advantage of that well. We can just congratulate them and keep working ourselves.”
While Simeone was carrying out his media duties, unused Atletico substitutes Mario Hermoso and Felipe got involved in a confrontation with the “Ultras” while they were doing a warm-up session on the pitch. It later emerged that Hermoso had responded to some of the comments directed at Griezmann, who has yet to gain fans since returning from Barcelona 12 months ago. Griezmann, 31, is still officially on loan from Barcelona, with this complicated arrangement including a compulsory purchase by Atletico for €40m in the summer of 2023, provided he plays a certain amount of matches this season (reportedly 50). percent for at least 45 minutes. Simeone hinted at some doubts about the Frenchman’s future on Saturday, saying: “I hope he stays with us.”
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On Sunday, Simeone used Griezmann in an unusual midfield role for just over half an hour, to little effect. Morata was well marked during his 69th minute, collecting just 19 touches, which included five headers, four shots and three completed passes. Witsel also struggled to establish himself – he made 74 passes, more than anyone else on the field, but without really contributing to his team’s push up onto the field.
For a team that still finds itself, with players unsure of their current or future positions, Emery-managed organized Villarreal are the worst opponents they face.
In his post-match press conference, Emery said, after he smiled in response to a question: “Over the past 12 months we’ve progressed and learned, changed some things, changed some pieces, and we’ve become a better and more mature team overall.” On how he feels after finally winning over Simeone’s side at the 17th attempt.
This picture of development and improvement planned season after season is not entirely present at Atletico, where each transfer window could bring more surprises and more frequent work for Simeone to do – as happened last January when right-back Kieran Trippier was sold to Newcastle.
This window started with the expectation around Atletico that Morata and Saul, after returning from loan spells at Juventus and Chelsea, would immediately leave again. But no one has yet been found to pay the required price, or in particular, their exorbitant wages. The Atletico hierarchy was also open to offers from several members of the squad – including unloved defenders Hermoso and Renan Lodi.
All of these players are still around, which has led to speculation about who could be sold to balance the books instead. Manchester United have reportedly made a €135 million bid for Joao Felix and €50 million for being – Old Trafford was apparently interested in Morata – and Atletico sources said. the athlete They recently turned down offers for all of these players.
Atlético watchers will regularly know that such stories could be a harbinger of their future departure, and there is concern among fans about what may happen over the next two weeks. The same “Ultras” who revolted against Griezmann and Hermoso on Sunday were among the most outraged earlier this month when the idea was raised that Cristiano Ronaldo could use Atletico as an escape route from United.
“The best thing for coaches is to close the market when the season starts,” Simeone said on Saturday. “Starting with it open makes the task more complicated. Until the window is closed, the players don’t feel comfortable. Once it is closed, another chapter begins, and then we can see who can play and who can’t.”
Sunday’s game showed how this uncertainty can negatively affect a team’s performance. Atletico fans and their coach face two anxious weeks before they know for sure whether Morata, Felix, Griezmann and Carrasco – and perhaps also Ronaldo – will appear in other chapters of the Atlético 2022-23 story.
(Top photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images))