Atlético Madrid – Villarreal: Atlético’s Attrition Continues The Charge (3-1)

Atlético Madrid’s source of strength has been their home fortress. However, the form book between these two sides foresaw what turned out to be a more even duel. A fresh face in the dugout conjured old magic from the well of the visitors, forcing their opponents to dig deep.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

Atlético Madrid aimed to preserve their flawless record on home soil in all competitions in the current campaign. A 2-1 loss to Las Palmas should not shake faith in their class. Indeed, that defeat marked the end of a six match winning streak in the league that extended throughout October. Their records for conceding and scoring goals are second best across the division. And notwithstanding their game in hand on all their high-flying rivals in LaLiga, the club still came into this fixture in fourth position.

Unai Emery’s exit to Aston Villa was not a snag in the season of Villarreal. Quique Sétien looked to the intelligent interplay of his midfielders to lead the way to fifth place in the table in May. The board has since removed him from his role, thanks to a collection of three points in the first four fixtures, but the installment of Pacheta in September has not improved fortunes. Only two league victories graced his two month tenure, and the visitors had sat in the bottom third of the standings upon his sacking.

Villarreal were victors at the death in the Europa League in midweek. Pacheta had rested eight players for the trip to Maccabi Haifa. Gerard Moreno, their top scorer in LaLiga, had not been in the squad. He and Alexander Sørloth, on 13 goal contributions for the campaign, coupled as spearheads. Interim manager Miguel Ángel Tena called on Álex Baena, Étienne Capoue, Dani Parejo, and Yeremy Pino in midfield as four pairs of fresh legs. Jorge Cuenca and Raúl Albiol sat at the heart of their defense.

On the other hand, Diego Simeone selected nine men from the six goal steamrolling of Celtic in Europe. Rodrigo Riquelme and Nahuel Molina stayed as the wing-backs in a back five. Axel Witsel, José Giménez, and Mario Hermoso filled the three positions in the middle of the defense. Saúl Ñíguez and Rodrigo de Paul joined Koke in the middle of the park. Pablo Barrios and Ángel Correa had lost their starting spots: Antoine Griezmann and Álvaro Morata were undisputed pieces in the eleven.

Patience and power

The leadership of Tena might have let loose the shackles that have held back Villarreal. Their hosts were willing to press out of their 5-3-2 block. The two central forwards split against the center-backs. Koke often jumped to cover Parejo, and Saúl tracked Capoue while the defense rotated so that Molina could raise pressure on Adrià Altimira. That prevented too much commitment to one side of the field. If Saúl defended the fullback, de Paul jumped to Parejo, Koke shifted to Capoue, and a defender could push out to loosely mark Baena in the midfield. This defensive scheme did not scare the underdogs.

Villarreal built from a familiar base. Yellow shirts encouraged Jörgensen to invite the press. Parejo and Capoue sat as a double pivot, while Altimira was the more reserved fullback on the ball. Baena dropped off to connect, roamed into pockets, and looked to release Alberto Moreno’s running power on the left in the final third. But the three other offensive figures worked in tandem to the most effect.

For all his goals for the club, Moreno’s mastery lies outside of the box. His ball handling, link-up play, and passing have allowed for some of Villarreal’s most creative moments. While the threat from such combinations was a known quantity, the dynamism and assertiveness of Sørloth and Yeremy sowed seeds of doubt at the back. The defenders could not always get into close contact with Moreno. If so, he could intersperse clever actions with the ball to engineer openings during the first half hour.

28th minute: buildup sequence from Villarreal. Capoue and Altimira rotated in the buildup structure, dragging out Saúl to press. Koke had initially jumped to Parejo, so Baena drew out Giménez. The defender was not back in position to manage Moreno, whose layoff to the advancing Baena breaks the press. Sørloth had moved to the ballfar side, receives and drives into the box, but misses his shot.

The vying from the visitors for the lead was successful. Their goal would have been the typical toast of the town not too long ago. Morata pressed Filip Jörgensen from his right, so the goalkeeper rotated the ball to Albiol as a third man through Capoue. De Paul jumped his screen on Capoue to attack the central defender, and the search for the free man flowed. Altimira fed the central midfielder, galloping into space, and Baena flipped a first time pass around the corner into Sørloth. The striker forced Jan Oblak to parry. His partner rattled a rasping volley into the empty net to notch his eighth league strike.

Valiant Villarreal lose their grip

Villarreal tended to defend in a passive 4-4-2 shape, falling back into their half of the field. Against adventurous Atlético wing-backs that advanced into the final third, the back four pinched tightly in the box, and the wingers dropped onto the last line for more cover. How would the hosts respond?

An equalizer arrived with terrific timing. The clock ticked over into injury time when Koke released Riquelme to rove forward on the left flank. A habitual pattern of play in this zone broke the backline. The wing-back dribbled diagonally inside, engaging Yeremy, while Griezmann peeled to his outside on the overlap. He ran towards the baseline, drilling a delivery along the face of the box that fell at the feet of Witsel at the far post. The defender powered his effort past Jörgensen just before the break.

Atlético’s alarmed state could lay to rest. Simeone refocused the troops, deciding on one substitution. He swapped Saúl for Marcos Llorente in the midfield. At the same stage of this clash, Tena had taken off two of his most dangerous weapons. Sørloth had been suffering from pain in his leg, and Yeremy did not reappear after the break due to fears of a risk of relapse with a hamstring injury. Ramon Terrats moved to the right of the midfield, Ilias Akhomach supported Moreno in the frontline, and Baena dropped back to the left of the pivot. The state of play slowly shifted in favor of the hosts.

Without the profiles of Yeremy and Sørloth, Tena’s men lost the depth and variability in their offense to mix with their intricacy in close quarters. Atlético asserted their superiority at the back, and it was a platform from which they began to threaten. Griezmann and de Paul wore down the defense from the left, while Llorente brought more speed and breakthrough potential in the outer zones of the field. More than once, Morata was guilty of not converting crosses into goals from the midfielder.

54th minute: offensive sequence from Atlético Madrid. The hosts spread the play to the right flank where Llorente drops to separate from Alberto Moreno. Morata’s headed effort flashes wide of the post. Such deep halfspace crosses to the far post are often a good tool against passive, broad blocks.

Full steam ahead

Simeone sensed blood. He instructed three new men to take to the field. Samuel Lino replaced Riquelme as the left wing-back,  Molina made way for Barrios, and Correa came on for de Paul.

As the final ten minutes loomed, Atlético stole a march on the away team. Lino and Koke circulated possession before the captain chose to clip a diagonal pass behind the left edge of Villarreal’s defense. Llorente leveraged the space inside Carlos Romero, getting away from his man and laying the ball across the six yard box. Griezmann tucked away his eighth league goal of the season, consecrating his legacy a little further. His 169th goal for the club put him second in the scoring standings of all time.

The guarantee of a victory was another five minutes in the waiting. Capoue could not connect to Moreno, and the following transition was brutal. Hermoso probed with a pass to Morata, whose layoff shifted the play to Barrios. Romero gambled on access to Romero, encouraging Barrios to burst beyond Parejo over the halfway line. Though Cuenca slipped out on the cover, he was too late. Lino slammed a cutback into the net. Two goals to the good, Atlético allowed themselves to relax.


Simeone was rightly elated at this triumph. His men drew three of the last four league outings against Villarreal, losing the other 2-0, and had not won at the Wanda against the team in the previous three seasons. Even more significant than the end of that wretched record is how the victory has allowed Atlético to stay with the pack in a competitive campaign. Real Sociedad and Girona seek to ensure the stakes should be high in each fixture, so they will require such fine form to uphold their usual level.

As an outfit that have finished in the top seven all but once during the last decade, the manner of this beating will barely console Villarreal. The visitors lie in 14th position and may fail to qualify for Europe for the first time in five years. But the display was a solid building block. Both managers admitted how the associative qualities of the players could create issues when they are closer to their top level. The visit of Osasuna in two weeks is the next chance to channel their powers of recovery.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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