Long live Cholismo
Welcome to “Anatomy of a Win”, where we look at a major result from this season and break down how it happened. Today, we look at Atletico Madrid’s triumph against Liverpool.
Atleti claimed a historic victory this past week, going to Anfield on a European night and beating Liverpool 3-2 in extra time, knocking the reigning European Champions out of the competition. It was a thrilling way to close out the Champions League, which was abruptly halted due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Do not get it twisted, though. This was not a classic Cholismo victory. Atleti defensively were not as good as they were even in the first leg. They surrendered plenty of chances to Liverpool, and had it not been for the heroics of Jan Oblak, as well as a bit of luck sprinkled on top, the story would have been remarkably different. To say Atleti were not lucky would be inaccurate, but this was an emboldened Colchonero team that put out a heroic performance. In the press conference after the match, Diego Simeone described his team’s style of play, saying his team plays “to win, with all our soul.” That it was Atleti did; they scratched and clawed and fought their way to a historic win.
Three players were crucial in this victory for Atleti. First, and he cannot be emphasized enough, was Jan Oblak. The Slovenian demonstrated why he is considered by many to be the best goalkeeper in the world, making nine saves, more than any other goalkeeper had to make in the knockout stages so far this season. Liverpool had plenty of chances, and Oblak’s heroic shot stopping did more than enough to keep Atleti in the tie, rightfully earning Man of the Match for his performance. Simeone was very complimentary of his shot stopper after the match, saying “he decides games the way [Lionel] Messi does for Barcelona.” Without Oblak in goal, it is very likely that this story would have been much different.
The second player was Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian midfielder was easily Atleti’s best outfield player on the night, becoming a one-man wrecking crew in midfield. While Atleti as a team were less solid defensively than in the first leg, Partey did his bit in the second leg, winning tackles and interceptions all over the pitch. His passing was also solid, and he had the third most touches of any Atleti player. European matches at Anfield can often become manic, which plays into Liverpool’s strengths, but Partey offered a sense of calmness and composure to an Atleti midfield that desperately needed it.
The third player was Marcos Llorente. Now, it is easy to point to the player who scored twice as the key player, and that is part of the discussion. However, it is being ignored that Simeone’s main stroke of managerial intelligence from this match, subbing on Llorente for Diego Costa in the second half, did very much change the match in Atleti’s favor. While he was largely used as a defensive midfielder earlier in his career, Simeone had used him in more of a box-to-box midfield role, able to bring energy and life into the midfield. His substitution helped to sure up a midfield that was tiring after relentless Liverpool pressure, and it took off a player, Diego Costa, who was not able to have an impact on the match. Also, not to be ignored, he scored two goals and combined well with Alvaro Morata to assist the third. Those two goals did largely benefit from Liverpool mistakes and poor defending, but you still do have to be there to score them. Llorente coming on added more stability to the Atleti midfield, which allowed them the opportunities to get forward and score the goals.
On the other side, Liverpool did play very well. In a period of the season where Klopp’s team had been, relatively speaking, struggling, they put out possibly one of their best performances in recent months in this match. It was quite possibly Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s best performance in a Liverpool shirt, and in general, there was a tangible difference in the Liverpool midfield with the return of captain Jordan Henderson from injury. Unlike in the first leg, the Reds were able to win the ball back high up the pitch and were able to generate very clear chances. Compared to their eight shots and zero on target in Madrid, Liverpool racked up 34 shots, with 11 on target, in this game, including several very good chances that were missed or saved by Oblak. They also tallied up their highest crossing total in a single match since the mid-2000s. Their expected goal tally would have justified a 4-1 win, so it is impossible to say that Liverpool did not deserve a victory, but the chances simply did not fall their way.
“Lack of luck” was not the sole reason for this defeat, as both of Llorente’s goals were directly the result of Liverpool errors, specifically from back up goalkeeper Adrian, and from generally poor defending from the Liverpool back four. The first goal came off of a silly giveaway by Adrian, who did not recognize the amount of time he had to pick a pass, instead needlessly rifling the ball directly to the feet of João Félix. When Llorente got the ball in the move, Trent Alexander-Arnold did not do enough to pressure the ball or take Llorente’s sights off of goal, allowing the Spaniard to fire off a shot that, admittedly, should have been saved by Adrian. The second goal was also a result of very poor defending from the Liverpool back line. With Morata charging forward, Van Dijk and Gomez both lost sight of Llorente, who moved into the blind side of Gomez. Gomez did recover, and Henderson wisely came over to assist the young Englishman, but neither really put any pressure on Llorente, allowing him to move onto his stronger right foot and shoot, all without any real challenge. Adrian also probably should have done better with this shot, but the main issue lies with Gomez and Henderson’s inability to close down the ball. Liverpool, a team who is devastatingly good at profiting off of opponents mistakes, should know that they cannot afford to make these simple mistakes at this level. Morata’s goal also was not great defending, as a simple one-two combination between Llorente and Morata allowed the Spanish striker to get in behind Gomez, leaving him one-on-one with Adrian in a chance that the striker will always be favored to finish. By that time, the tie was well and truly over, but it does highlight that much of Liverpool’s downfall was of their own making.
And that is the anatomy of Atletico Madrid’s historic 3-2 victory over Liverpool at Anfield. A bit of Cholismo paired with some brilliant individual performances, with a bit of luck and sloppiness from the opponent sprinkled on top, created a night that Atleti fans will not forget any time soon. If this is going to be our last taste of Champions League football for a while, then we sure picked a good match to end on.