With 80 minutes played at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday, Atletico Madrid seemed set for another of the drab but efficient 1-0 victories so common during Diego Simeone’s time as rojiblanco coach.
Diego Costa’s first half penalty - awarded for a handball picked up by VAR - had Atletico ahead of a Valencia team who had improved after the break but not yet seriously threatened Jan Oblak’s goal.
But this is a different Atletico season, and things that should not go wrong keep going wrong.
The first warning sign was Portuguese starlet Joao Felix limping off after what had seemed an innocuous midfield challenge, leaving his side with 10 men as all three changes were already made.
Almost immediately Valencia captain Dani Parejo scored an absolute beauty of a free-kick equaliser, with his 25-yard strike swerving over the wall and away from even Oblak’s telescopic reach. The mood swung completely, and the Atletico keeper soon had to make a superb save to stop Parejo making it 2-1. There was also time for a red card for a wild hack by the visitors’ teenage South Korean substitute Kang In Lee.
All the unexpected excitement meant the home fans were very down at the final whistle. After starting 2019/20 with three straight wins, Simeone’s side now have just one more victory - and only three goals scored - across their last six La Liga games.
Even more worrying for Colchoneros fans is that their team lacks the cohesiveness of previous seasons, their play is often slow and laboured, and the players themselves even seem to lack spirit and rebellion when things are not going to plan.
Simeone accepted at Saturday’s post-game news conference that there was a lot of work to do after so many changes last summer, when new faces including €126 million teenager Joao Felix and England international Kieran Trippier arrived, and mainstays Diego Godin, Rodrigo Hernandez and Antoine Griezmann departed.
“We are a new team, and must work hard to learn what we need to do,” El Cholo said. “Today the first half was good, second half not so much. It has been the same in other games, like here against Juventus [in the Champions League]. We don’t yet have the balance to manage moments in games, above all when we need to suffer and position ourselves well and keep calm. But we are convinced we have the players to do this. There is work to do, and I like that.”
Even with a mostly new defence, Atletico have not been conceding many - Parejo’s free kick was the first goal scored past Oblak in over 300 minutes of La Liga action. But there are loads of problems elsewhere.
Ex-Tottenham right-back Trippier was rotated out today with Colombia’s Santiago Arias starting in a hybrid wing-back role. Simeone’s team lined up as 3-4-1-2 when attacking, but 4-4-2 without the ball, with Mario Hermoso and Saul Niguez also in dual roles down the left side of the team. Such tactical flexibility usually works better on paper [or in the manager’s head] than in real-life match situations. Especially against clever opposition coaches, as Valencia’s newly arrived Albert Celades is quickly proving himself to be.
Simeone’s aim is to get young promise Joao Felix into the XI along with both senior centre-forwards Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata. But despite having such an apparently attacking intent, only once in Atletico's entire La Liga history [1968/69] have they scored fewer than their current eight goals after nine games. While sent the wrong way by Costa from the penalty spot, Valencia goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen did not otherwise have a difficult save to make on Saturday.
Morata has not scored since La Liga opening day in mid-August, although injury and suspension have cut short his playing time. The former Chelsea striker looked very low on confidence on Saturday, with his decision making particularly poor, and he was substituted early. Costa and Joao Felix have just two La Liga goals each so far all season - and the young Portuguese also now faces about a month on the sidelines after tests Saturday night confirmed a seriously sprained ankle.
Things could be worse, considering 16 points after nine games is the joint lowest of Simeone’s eight seasons in charge. Fortunately both their main rivals have also been stumbling, so Atletico remain right in the title race despite such a dodgy start.
All of Antoine Griezmann, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were on the scoresheet together for the first time as Barcelona won 3-0 at Eibar Saturday lunchtime, to continue their recovery from an early wobble and go top of the table. Zinedine Zidane named a mostly second-string side for Saturday evening’s limp 0-1 defeat at Real Mallorca, with Madrid’s awful Champions League start meaning the main focus was Tuesday’s UCL group game at Galatasaray.
“Everything concerns me,” Simeone said when asked on Saturday for his biggest current worry. “Nobody thought this would be an easy season, I knew we would have a lot of work to do, to get the team balanced. In certain moments some people look to point fingers, others to work hard. Those who want to work hard will get on well with me. Those who point fingers, won’t.”
Atletico had won their last four home La Liga games against Valencia - with three different coaches on the opposition bench. Current boss Celades was the first to get the better of the in-game tactical battle with Simeone, as the visitors were pushed back in the first half but had the better of the game after the break. Los Che club captain Parejo was peripheral until he moved deeper during the second half and took control of the game, while ex-Arsenal pair Gabriel Paulista and Francis Coquelin continued their impressive form.
“Coming here is not easy,” Celades told reporters afterwards. “We found it difficult in the first half, Atletico had more chances. We changed a few things at the break, but the credit goes to the players. They responded brilliantly in the second half, showed a lot of personality and ambition to overcome a very difficult situation.”
Celades knows all about very difficult situation, having taken his first ever senior club coaching job last month after very popular predecessor Marcelino Garcia Toral was fired following differences with Valencia owner Peter Lim.
The rookie coach has overseen a Champions League victory at Chelsea and a now five-game unbeaten run in La Liga, despite continuing fans protests and general turmoil off the pitch. Even as Celades was speaking in the Wanda’s press room, elsewhere in the stadium Valencia president Anil Murthy was confirming the club’s director general Mateu Alemany had been relieved of his duties.
Asked how he could keep his team focused on what he wanted them to do, Celades said that positive results were key. “Results always reinforce everything, what you want to do, what you are trying to do,” said the one time Barcelona and Real Madrid midfielder. “It makes it a lot easier. We are on the right path. But we must keep going and keep improving.”
Both Atletico and Valencia face important Champions League group games this week, at home to Leverkusen and away at Lille respectively. Only a few weeks into his job, Celades appears to know where he is headed and have his players with him. Meanwhile, Simeone is facing maybe the biggest challenge of his nine years as Atletico coach.