Atletico Madrid’s unbeaten streak at home to Valencia continued into its seventh year on Sunday as the visitors continued their poor run of form, falling to the capital side 1-0 for their third consecutive defeat. Here are my three main talking points from this weekend’s top-3 clash.
- Unorthodox XI Shows Defensive Quality
If there was ever a coach to embody the phrase uttered at every basketball and pop-warner summer camp, “defense wins championships,” it would be Atlético Madrid’s Diego Simeone. Simeone is one of world football’s top managers, leading Atleti to a league title, a Copa Del Rey, a Supercopa, and two Champions League final appearances in the last five years. El Cholo has hammered his hallmark defensive creed into each of the players on his 23-man roster, and Sunday’s masterful performance proved that even the most attacking-minded starting XI is no exception. Simeone omitted all holding midfielders, moving Saúl inside as an interior midfielder next to Koke and added Yannick Carrasco on the left flank, with Ángel Correa further supplementing the attack on the right. Both wingers showed an intense drive to get forward in the first half, tormenting José Gaya and Rubén Vezo with their pace and dribbling. But Carrasco and Correa also demonstrated outstanding discipline to track back and maintain the critical four-man midfield shape when Valencia were in possession. Griezmann and Costa got stuck in and pressed hard up top while Saúl and his Spanish compatriot Koke closed down any efforts to attack down the middle. The visitors were forced to move the ball out wide or reset with a back pass, with Atleti limiting their ability to play direct to Zaza and Mina. Valencia failed to register a single shot on target all afternoon.
- Kondogbia Shines
Inter loanee Geoffrey Kondogbia has flourished on the Spanish coast. Adding an uncommon blend of steel, flair, and technical ability to the midfield, Kondogbia is a jack-of-all-trades. Despite Valencia’s conservative defensive approach to the match, Kondogbia still managed to stand out. The Frenchman dazzled on both fronts, elegantly evading swarms of red and white stripes with delicate close control and distributing under pressure, in addition to doing the defensive dirty work and neutralizing the rugged physicality of Diego Costa. Kondogbia made 3 tackles, 3 clearances, 5 interceptions, won 16 duels, completed 93 percent of his passes in addition to 11 long balls. His standout performance will be a small consolation in the face of a disappointing result.
- What’s next for Marcelino?
Los Che face a quick turnaround, squaring off against league-leaders Barcelona in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semis at the Mestalla on Thursday. The Blaugrana dominated in their first leg victory at the Camp Nou but only lead on aggregate by a single goal. Valencia enter the cup match in dreadful form, winless in their last 5 and failing to keep a clean sheet in their last 7. Marcelino must take a more proactive approach to Thursday’s clash if he is to have a chance against the Catalán giants, but with wingers Gonçalo Guedes and Andreas Pereira sidelined with injuries, the Asturian boss is left with few other wide options. The return of midfield jewel Carlos Soler from injury is encouraging and Valencia displayed defensive solidity, only to be undone in a moment of brilliance from Ángel Correa. With Real Madrid and Villarreal knocking on the doorstep of third place and Valencia floundering in their worst slump of the year, Marcelino’s toughest test is fully upon him.