Is Simeone Running Out of Time? Atletico Madrid vs Liverpool – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

After a lengthy absence, the Champions League finally returns with so many juicy fixtures to discuss. I’ll be previewing all of these games, starting with Atletico Madrid facing the holders Liverpool.

Atletico Madrid currently sits outside of the top four, with La Liga featuring some fierce competition for the Champions League spots for the first time in years. We’ve discussed Atletico’s messy summer, which revolved around the sales of their biggest stars. Griezmann, Godin, Rodri, Hernandez, Felipe Luiz and Juanfran all departed the club; a core of talented players, some of whom helped Atletico to the title back in 2014.

Some of their new arrivals have actually been massive success stories. Felipe and Mario Hermoso fit right in Simeone’s defensively phenomenal back-line, and Kieran Trippier has been their second most creative player, only behind Koke. While their signings in defence have all worked out well, as usual, the issues lie on the other side of the pitch.

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Replacing Antoine Griezmann was always going to be a tough task. The Frenchman not only contributed to a lot of goals, but he was very creative and consistently found pockets of space to help advance the play. Griezmann was always suited to a more attacking team, but playing for Simeone did help bring out skills you’d never expect to see from him if he had been playing under an attacking coach.

I always had my reservations on Atletico Madrid’s £135 million acquisition of Joao Felix. The Portuguese prospect did look like an exciting talent, but spending all of the Griezmann money on a player who only had a single season of first-team football under his belt is insanely risky on the short term. Felix could turn out to be a world-beater, but right now he is not contributing nearly as much as Atleti thought he would. Felix has only managed 2 goals and an assist in La Liga. He still looks very raw, not almost at the level of a Jadon Sancho or Kylian Mbappe. Felix has underperformed massively in attack, with Understat showing Felix should have doubled his goal tally. I can sympathise with that, considering the team’s reliance on him and Morata to do something magical in the final third. The problem with Felix is his underlying numbers have been sub-par. He’s making less than a shot assist per 90 and completing 30% of his dribbles.

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Atletico’s most prominent problem coming into this tie is the number of injuries they’re facing throughout the team. Costa, Felix, Morata, Koke and Trippier are all likely to miss this game, leaving Simeone without a first-team number nine. Their attacking options were already quite barren; now it’s insane to think Atletico will even score against the best team in Europe. The worrying part about this is all the injuries are muscle-based. I can’t comment on how this team trains because I don’t know, but it’s troubling to see all of their forwards suddenly pick up injuries around the same time.

I initially chose Alvaro Morata as the player to watch for Liverpool, but now I have no idea. Carrasco might be their biggest threat, considering he is the only player currently in the squad with a modicum of excitement in the way he plays. After Atletico Madrid’s awful display in their second leg against Juventus in last year’s competition, I can’t see them beating a better team with a worse group of players.

On a more positive note, let’s talk about Liverpool. The current holders have been absolutely fantastic domestically, currently going unbeaten and only dropping points on one occasion. Every player is performing at or above their level at the moment. The Reds’ forward line remains one of the best in Europe, with each of their attackers able to turn a game on their own. Their full-backs dominate the ball, primarily progressing the ball through their incredible passing ability and sheer dynamism. Their goalkeeper, Alisson, who has somehow made the best defence in the league look even better, with shot-stopping so good, he’s undoubtedly the best keeper in the Premier League.

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The midfield has always been an area I’ve been hesitant to call good, but after a year, I finally understand why their midfield works. Klopp doesn’t use his midfielders as other managers do; the likes of Pep use them for ball progression and creativity. Klopp uses his midfielders as defenders, to allow the full-backs to push up and not worry about opposition counter-attacks. Klopp prefers progression through the full-backs because, excluding the obvious answer of how good Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are, it still gives them some security in defence. If the pair do manage to lose the ball, they won’t lose it in dangerous areas. It isn’t nearly as problematic as Henderson or Wijnaldum losing the ball. Klopp and Liverpool have built a team properly, getting the best out of their players, in a system which allows them to blossom and cover for their weaknesses.

There is no denying Liverpool are a genuinely great team but are they one of the best teams we’ve seen of the modern game? They’re definitely up there, but I’d probably put Pep’s 2011 Barca, Heynckes’ treble team and Pep’s Centurions over Klopp’s team. Those three sides were insanely dominant while putting in the performances to show it. Liverpool has been the best team in the league, but their dominance doesn’t show in a similar way to the teams mentioned. Manchester City would be a lot closer if they weren’t suffering from a few off games and some bad luck. The area in which Liverpool have benefitted the most is in their opposition. Numerous times this season, we’ve seen teams play Liverpool and suddenly forget how to put chances away. The likes of Southampton, Watford, Wolves, Manchester United and Manchester City all perform under their expected when playing against the soon-to-be Premier League Champions. Is Liverpool to blame for this? Not necessarily. It’s more to point out how they haven’t been the perfect team many are making them out to be.

Yet, I still have a tremendous amount of respect for this Liverpool team. It’s the same kind of respect I have for Mourinho’s great sides or Sean Dyche’s Burnley. I appreciate how well Klopp’s team operates and wins games. Liverpool is a well-oiled machine, capable of competing against all of the winning Champions League sides from the past.

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As mentioned before, Van Dijk is by far their most valuable player, but Mohamed Salah is a close second. The Egyptian forward has been frighteningly good since his return to English football. Many like to point out he isn’t as good as he was during that first season since his goal return has dropped off, but that criticism has zero weight behind it. Salah is still as creative and threatening in front of goal as he was in 2018. The difference is that teams have begun doubling-up on him. It’s why Mane’s goal output suddenly skyrocketed last season. Salah has effectively opened up space for his teammate through sides labelling him as Liverpool’s biggest attacking threat. It’s quite amazing how Mane is even being discussed in the conversation for player of the year, when Salah, among other Liverpool players, have been a lot better.

If Atletico wishes to progress beyond the round of sixteen, they must pray and hope luck goes their way. Also, they must cement enough of an advantage at the Wanda Metropolitano. We’ve seen Liverpool in the past couple of seasons perform below their level during some away matches, most notably against Napoli on two separate occasions and at the Camp Nou. This first leg is vital. If Atletico waste it, they won’t have a chance at Anfield.

If Liverpool wishes to return to the final once again, they must focus a lot of their attacks down the left side. Simeone will be forced to play Sime Vrsaljko, someone who has only started two games in La Liga this season and has suffered from consistent injury problems since his impressive World Cup performances for Croatia.

My money for this would be on Liverpool. Even if they do manage to lose the first leg, I can’t trust Simeone to set up his side in the right way at Anfield, after the awful in which they exited the competition last season. You can’t hope to sit on leads away from home. The strategy doesn’t work anymore, as Barcelona have proved on two occasions. I can see Simeone sitting on a 1-0 lead and hoping Liverpool forget how to score goals, something that won’t happen. Liverpool will be in the quarter-finals once again.

Worst Players at The 2018 World Cup XI – Kroos, De Gea, Mascherano

With the tournament reaching its final stages, let’s look at the players who have disappointed the most. I will not be selecting players from teams that were expected to not perform. These are players who play for nations full of talent, but failed to show their own.

David De Gea

I really wanted to put Manuel Neuer here, for looking so unfocused and was clearly not ready. But I am giving him plenty of sympathy, because he should have never been playing. David De Gea however had one of the best seasons a goalkeeper has ever had. He was the main reason why United had a good defense. However at this world cup he just didn’t look like himself. He only managed to make one whole save in this entire tournament. His tournament can be summed up by that mistake against Portugal, a mistake he would usually never make.

Yannick Carrasco

I can’t blame him too much for being here. He is an attacking left winger, playing as a wing back. It might be a bit harsh, but he still was not great at all. His weakness as a player playing out of position was highlighted throughout the tournament. His positional awareness was very poor, resulting with him being one of their worst performance in their comeback against Japan. He was then dropped for the Brazil game, just showing how he didn’t impress.

Federico Fazio

It might definitely be harsh putting a player who only played one half of football all tournament, but out of all of the terrible defenders who played for Argentina, he was by far the worst. He didn’t make a single defensive contribution against France, a team who scored 4 past them. A player who was just shown up by much better players.

Jerome Boateng

Germany were very poor in this tournament, and their lack of organisation was one of their downfalls. While his partner, Matts Hummels, was actually pretty good, considering how bad the defense was. Boateng was very poor. While his defensive work looks very good (racking up 4.5 tackles and interceptions per 90), it’s important to remember how small of a pool it is to judge. He only played two games. But out of the stats seen, he made 2.5 fouls per 90, which was his downfall. He seems to not have that steady head he usually has and was so much more reckless. It was a very out of character tournament for him.

Javier Mascherano

Why is Javier Mascherano still playing at a world cup? The man is way past it and should have never been selected in the first place. Why wasn’t Lo Celso starting instead, or why wasn’t Parades even taken? It just makes zero sense why Mascherano was even taken. His age is definitely showing, especially in that Croatia game. Modric and Rakitic ran circles around him and it just highlighted his vulnerabilies. He also completed a very high 86 passes per game, however only 0.7 key passes, showing how ineffective he was creativity. He is a player who didn’t perform when he was never expected to.

Toni Kroos

While it might be controversial, I think Kroos was Germany’s worst performer in the world cup. Low consisted with his 4-2-3-1. The problem with that Kroos only works in a 3 man midfield. Just looking at him at Real Madrid, Casemiro does most of his defensive work, and Modric and can do everything else. It gives Kroos the opportunity to go forward and assist the team, but in a 2 with Sami Khedira (we’ll get to him), it doesn’t give him this licence. The problem however, was this team had zero organisation. He never played as a defensive midfielder throughout the tournament, and continued to play like an 8. It was so frustrating and I have to have some sympathy for his teammates. A poor showing from a player I expect so much more game management from.

Sami Khedira

By far the worst performer. The Juventus midfielder looked a shadow of himself against Mexico. He was completely outran by Herrera, Lozano and Guadrado, and had zero control over the game. A pairing of Kroos and Khedira would have worked 4 years ago, but Kroos needs more men around him, and Khedira is just completely past it. He doesn’t offer anything creativity or defensively, so it is a real question why he was playing. Just another example of Low showing too much loyality.

Maximiliano Meza

Why was he even taken? Again I have to question Sampoali’s squad here. Why was a player who is average at best, going over Angel Correa, Mauro Icardi or Parades. It’s a mystery to me why he was not only going, but he was actually playing. Meza was playing over Dybala. Sampoali even said he was never going to start Dybala, so why even take him. Dybala is one of the best forwards on the planet. Why play an average player over him is beyond me. Meza was also very poor himself. He failed to impress in any of the games he played, especially against France.

Bernardo Silva

A player who is actually like, Silva did struggle for starts last season for City, but looked like he could help this Portugal side earn more glory after their 2016 Euro triumph. However it just wasn’t the tournament for him. In an attack where Ronaldo seemed to be the only one who brought his A game, Silva was one who was very underwhelming. He failed to score or assist in his 3 games, which led to him being dropped for the round of 16 game. He was very ineffective in the final third, failing to really give that bit of quality that the forwards needed. A poor showing from a player who is far from that.

Marcus Berg

Marcus Berg took the most shots without scoring. If that doesn’t give him a reason to be here I don’t know what will. Berg was part of a Sweden team that really failed in the attacking third. They won their first game through a penalty, and only beat Switzerland thanks to a lucky deflection. Luck is the best word to describe Sweden in this tournament. Berg was very poor in front of goal. One chance sticks in my head, being an easy finish for him against Korea, but he instead hit it right at the keeper, or his volley from less than 6 yards out. Filling Zlatan’s shoes is tough, but Berg failed spectacularly in his attempt.

Timo Werner

I love Werner, and seeing have a poor world cup is difficult. His poor performances weren’t all his fault. The team seemed to be playing as if he was Klose or Gomez, instead of giving through balls to take advantage of his incredible speed. Werner, however, was still poor. He failed to contribute to a single goal. He also was quite poor in an attacking sense, losing the ball 2.3 times per game. Which is much higher than his usual 0.7. Werner his a player with very high potential, so let’s hope this tournament isn’t a stumbling block for him.