As we head towards Thursday’s suddenly-emotionally loaded Europa League semifinal with Atlético Madrid, we realized that we didn’t have anyone on staff that knew a whole lot about Atleti or how they’re set up and how they’re doing this season. To get that knowledge, we turned to Euan McTear.
McTear is a Madrid-based journalist for MARCA In English and La Liga Lowdown. He has also written a book on Atlético Madrid, titled ‘Hijacking La Liga: How Atlético Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid’s Duopoly on Spanish Football’.
Arsene Wenger is leaving, and the fairy tale ending would be for the Frenchman to bow out clutching the Europa League trophy, but Diego Simeone and his Atlético Madrid stand in the way of the final in Lyon and they are not the kind of team to follow the romantic script.
How did they get here?
There should be no underestimating just how strong this Atlético Madrid side is, even if they didn’t make it through to the Champions League knockout stage for the first time in five seasons.
They finished third in a group behind Roma and Chelsea and competed well throughout, drawing away in Rome and defeating the Italians at home, as well as drawing at Stamford Bridge and only losing to a last-minute Michy Batshuayi goal when they hosted Chelsea. They came unstuck against Qarabağ, perhaps underestimating the Azerbaijani side, and those two draws against the European minnows cost them a place in the last 16.
Yet Atlético Madrid have turned it on whenever they’ve faced top-quality opposition like Arsenal. Looking at this season as a whole, their record against Champions League-calibre sides in LaLiga is as follows. Barcelona: 1-1 draw at home, 0-1 loss away. Real Madrid: 0-0 draw at home, 1-1 draw away. Valencia: 1-0 win at home, 0-0 draw away. Sevilla: 2-0 win at home. 5-2 win away. That’s just one defeat against the four other top sides in the country, while they’ve also been in great form in the Europa League to overcome FC Copenhagen 5-1 on aggregate, Lokomotiv Moscow 8-1 on aggregate and Sporting CP 2-1 on aggregate.
When all of the marbles are in play, Atlético rise to the occasion.
Their last match
The fact that Atlético are a big-game team means that their 0-0 draw against Real Betis last Sunday evening isn’t worth dissecting too much. Furthermore, Simeone rested several players who will start at the Emirates on Thursday evening, such as Diego Godín, Sime Vrsaljko, Koke and Antoine Griezmann. The latter three came on in the second half against Betis, but this rest will have done their legs a world of good.
Betis are the in-form team in Spain right now and travelled to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano with a run of six consecutive victories and no goals conceded in 473 minutes, so a draw was a positive result considering the rotations and considering the fact that Los Rojiblancos were without the injured Diego Costa, who remains a doubt to be fit in time for the first leg against the Gunners.
One of the interesting aspects of the match was the fact that Atlético deviated from their near-automatic 4-4- 2 system to play a 3-4- 3, with Juanfran and Saúl Ñíguez as wing-backs. The reason for this shift was so that Atleti could mirror the three-centre- back system of Betis and Simeone was asked after the match if he’d consider replicating the formation against Arsenal, another team who have used a back three at points this season. “Why not?” he replied. “We could play this way against Arsenal… or we could not.” My personal opinion is that he’ll stick with the 4-4- 2, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Atlético are more tactically flexible now than they were when they reached the Champions League finals of 2014 and 2016.
What state is the squad in?
In terms of injuries and suspensions, most of the players are available. Filipe Luis is out after fracturing his leg in a previous Europa League game, but Lucas Hernández is having an excellent season and is a solid replacement at left-back. Diego Costa, meanwhile, is fighting to come back from a hamstring injury and remains a major doubt to the last minute. As for suspensions, Atlético don’t have any.
Atlético Madrid’s squad as a whole is completely knackered, though, something Simeone even admitted after Sunday night’s match. “It’s normal that the players are tired, just like all workers get tired,” he said. However, Atlético are more fatigued than most, given that they shipped out five fringe players in the winter transfer window, leaving themselves with just 18 senior players in their first-team squad.
This is why it was so vital for the likes of Godín, Koke and Griezmann to be rested last weekend, because they have all played over 3,500 minutes this season. By comparison, Héctor Bellerín is the only Arsenal player to have accumulated more than 3,500 minutes in 2017/18.
If Atlético Madrid are to lose this tie, then I believe it will be because of their very shallow squad depth. Their starting XI is still one of the very best in Europe, from Jan Oblak at the back all the way to Costa and Griezmann up top. But one or two injuries, or one or two tiredness-related poor performances, would leave them vulnerable.
My predicted Atlético XI:
Jan Oblak; Sime Vrsaljko, Diego Godín, José María Giménez, Lucas Hernández; Angel Correa, Thomas Partey, Saúl Ñíguez, Koke; Antoine Griezmann, Diego Costa (if he is fit, if not then Kevin Gameiro).
Thanks again to Euan for taking the time to talk to The Short Fuse!