When LaLiga officially announced the fixtures for this upcoming season in late July, many eyes naturally made their way to the opening weekend. While most of the attention is normally reserved for who Real Madrid and Barcelona will play, this time around it was another match-up that had Spanish football fans collectively licking their lips.
Coming off an incredible campaign — in which they finished fourth — under first-year manager Marcelino, hope and optimism had swelled to new heights at Valencia. Key players such as Geoffrey Kondogbia were retained, while the club brought in a slew of promising signings led by Daniel Wass and Mitshi Batshuayi. Dealing with such a squad as an opening fixture would be challenging enough, but couple that with having to play them at Mestalla and on short rest is another proposition entirely.
Indeed, this was precisely the task laying at the boots of Atletico Madrid. Coming off a thrilling, albeit exhausting, 120 minute affair with Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup on Wednesday, spectators weren’t quite sure of what to expect from Diego Simeone’s men. Back on the touchline after his suspension midweek, El Cholo deployed his tried and tested 4-4-2 formation. Contrary to the norm, the Argentine decided to bypass the inclusion of a defensive midfielder by resting Rodri, instead going with a more offensive-minded side; which included Saul and Koke in central midfield and Angel Correa wide with Thomas Lemar.
The gamble initially paid-off, as the visitors dominated the proceedings and were able to strike first in the 27th minute. A sensational ball to Correa from Antoine Griezmann fooled the entire Valencia back-line, leaving the Argentine a simple finish to put past Neto. Without the defensive presence behind them, Koke and Saul at times left too much space in behind. This was noticeable when a rare misjudgment of the ball by Diego Godin allowed Rodrigo to equalize in the 60th minute. Going forward, this shouldn’t be of massive concern as it was the Uruguayans first error that directly lead to an opposition goal since 2012 against Barcelona.
One of Atleti’s most promising signings, Gelson Martins, came on for his Colchonero debut and immediately made an impact. In the 18 minutes he was on the field, he completed a total of three dribbles from six attempted. That was more than Valencia had as an entire team, having registered just two. Vitolo and Thomas Partey would also join the Portuguese as substitutions, hardly signifying a massive drop-off from the players they inevitably replaced.
While Atletico ultimately weren’t able to leave Mestalla with all three points, scratching out a draw was nothing to frown about. If anything, this match only further displayed the tremendous amount of depth and positional flexibility that Simeone now possesses. While clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona possess world class starting elevens in their own right, it is the quality of their depth that is often the difference in capturing trophies.
With aspirations of once again becoming Spanish champions, it was imperative that Atletico improve in this area compared to years past. Although the season is still very young, we have already seen glimpses of that dream becoming a reality. A more attacking approach is something that will take time to implement in Atletico’s collective psyche, but the early indications have been promising.
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