The Ambition Gap

Carrasco’s brilliant goal came in otherwise rather unimpressive game.

I’m finally starting to understand. Barclays Premier League is the most viewed football league in the world. Even though it’s clubs are getting humped in the continental competitions. Even though their best and most expensive teams can easily concede a bunch of goals against supposedly shite English teams – both in league and in various domestic cups. Even though their league’s top earner can have a stinker with 0 chances created, 0 dribbles, 55% passing accuracy in a game of the season – and still not get subbed off. Even though the team with virtually no defensive capability whatsoever (17 goals conceded in 10 matches), can still occupy #5 spot and everyone will laud their performances.

Everyone loves Premier League – but the reasons for that love can actually be found far away from the British Islands. Because, truth to be told, BPL has the qualities it’s main rivals don’t have – and are unlikely to acquire anytime soon. Most recent example: Atletico Madrid versus Valencia CF at Vicente Calderon. On paper: a clash between a regular top three La Liga team and an ambitious footballing project from Mestalla – aimed at undermining the position Diego Simeone’s team was occupying for the last three or four seasons. Both teams were coming into the fixture with fresh, Champions League victories in a bag – once again, proving the superiority of Spanish football as compared to the rest of the Europe. And yet…

The word is: ambition – that’s what I think was missing. Yes, Atletico are truly outstanding team, a team stronger than Valencia in nearly every aspect. Yes, they could still win in a blow-for-a-blow game. But all those facts prompted Nuno Espírito Santo to react in a way that’s almost unthinkable in Premier League. Going to Madrid, he reacted radically and benched all three members of his attacking trio: Sofiane Feghouli, Paco Alcácer and Pablo Piatti. Instead of the normal 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 formation, his team opted for a freakishly unusual 4-3-2-1 setup when off the ball. André Gomes, on paper responsible for a creative play down the right wing, spent most of the time chasing the likes of Filipe Luis and Koke.

It’s not that Nuno’s approach was necessarily bad in itself; it just heavily discouraged his players for aiming at anything better than a goalless draw. And if this was supposed to be a clever trap to exploit Colchoneros’ awkwardness when on the ball (they rose to prominence by neglecting possession in every single game) – Valencia’s manager was couple months late. With nearly equal ball retention (49% Atletico, 51% Valencia), the home side had actually 78% pass success: fractionally higher than VCF and higher than it used to be in times when blistering counterattacks used to be the bread and butter of Diego Simeone’s breakfasts. This time, there were hardly any quick breaks: just a fair and square, methodical play.

As if the game itself wasn’t enough of a challenge, 22 minutes into it, Rodrigo de Paul, who was supposed to be an attacking outlet for the visitors, had to be carried off the pitch. As usual in the cases of potentially most dangerous injuries, he stumbled and fell without any interference from the opponent. It’s been yet another upsetting thigh problem amongst so many all across the Europe this season – and the fact that Valencia had plenty of squad rotation to rest their forwards didn’t help much. Ultimately, with Álvaro Negredo outside of the match squad, Nuno had to put his faith in Alcácer anyway – but, as he admitted later, this forced substitution has destroyed his plan to a large extent.

Because of all that, the first half was all about Atletico. When they defended, they wouldn’t allow Valencia anywhere near their penalty box; Oblak had to make his first save after about 30 minutes of play. When they attacked, things immediately looked quite dangerous. Jackson Martínez, fired up after a good display against Astana, constantly kept giving problems to Mustafi, who had a misfortune of being booked early on – for a completely clean tackle. A couple of Gabi’s long passes spread terror behind enemy’s lines, causing the visitors to keep two midfielders sitting deep at all times to control the through ball threats. The midfield battle was well in favour of AM – and eventually, it showed.

Outplayed in the middle, visitors tried to switch play towards the right wing, where their full-back João Cancelo had actually a pretty good game. For a couple of minutes, it seemed like a good plan – and then, Atletico scored exactly from that area. Filipe Luis’ defensive clearance was, at best, random; it flew across the half of the pitch, falling down at nearly right angle. Mustafi tried to clear it near the ground by diving into a tackle – he missed it horribly. With Jackson Martínez breaking away from him and the ball bouncing, it was time for Aderllan Santos to try and kick it away with a kung-fu move – but he missed it as well. Comedy gold; from that point on, it was all just too easy for the ex-Porto striker.

If a devastating blow ever existed in football, that was it. Both sides were well-aware of it’s impact on the game: Atletico immediately started to attack vigorously while Nuno’s side visibly lost the plot. Less that three minutes after the opening goal, Griezmann’s run from the middle of the park has turned out to be so easy, the lad had more than enough time to make a perfect, defence-splitting pass to Jackson. This happened purely because Danilo and Enzo Pérez both utterly failed to track back and close the space in front of their four centre-backs. 0-1, a difficult moment for the entire team with rivals pushing hard for a 2nd goal – and those guys stood on the half-line and let the ball get in the oceans of space behind them!

Luckily for Los Che, this time around, Martínez was unable to put it past Jaume Domènech. The goalie, who’s been a Spanish third- and fourth-division player just two years ago, stopped the Colombian brilliantly and did equally well by parrying Godin’s acrobatic shot in a follow-up corner situation. Still, his teammates refused to help him. Eight minutes after the first disaster, visitors tried to build up an attack. Parejo dribbled through the middle like a headless chicken, getting into one challenge after another while refusing to make a pass. He ended up losing the ball, which went to Carrasco. The Frenchman skinned Cancelo, ripped through Pérez and found the net with a perfectly placed shot – from 20 meters out.

With 2-0 on the scoreboard at half-time, match looked as good as over – yet another major difference between Premier League and the Spanish elite. Nuno directly contributed to it by not making any changes. Both André Gomes and Santi Mina were utterly isolated upfront and if Piatti couldn’t score or assist in that game, he’d at least have a chance to provide these lads with a link of play. The Argentinian came into play in 80th minute – only after the penalty gave Valencia a bit of hope for a comeback. Both tactically and psychologically, Simeone was schooling his Portuguese colleague: he even sacrificed the momentum of Martínez to put Fernando Torres in after just 59 minutes. It looked simply bad for VCF.

To be fair to Nuno, one thing that he did right was subbing off Dani Parejo. On this occasion, his team’s captain was probably the worst footballer on the pitch, making only 23 passes in the entire game as well as losing the ball four times. Soon after the restart, he and Carrasco went into a brief brawl which ended with both players getting yellow cards. That was enough for the visitors’ boss, who put 19-years old Zakaria Bakkali in. Young Belgian wasn’t really much of an improvement to this side, but frankly – that evening, about any player would’ve been better than Parejo. Atletico’s veterans Gabi and Tiago had it too easy, from start to finish – which is why, in the end, it’s their club that came out on top.

For most of the second half, Atletico were just in a cruise control. Juanfran had a very comfortable time, running down the right wing and causing Gayà all kinds of problems. One of his crosses nearly produced the third goal, when Carrasco, perhaps too cheekily, tried to volley it from a difficult position. Los Che were too frustrated with the lack of change in their own performance, they actually almost shot themselves in the feet again, when Cancelo’s careless play was intercepted by Torres. The result of that lapse was a sliding shot from Griezmann that narrowly missed the net. Rojiblancos were just calmly watching their opposition imploding – or at least it seemed so for the most of the game.

João Cancelo. Only the first half was OK for him.

Because in the end, the game did contain a slight twist – and a comical one, as well. The story started with a straight-up abysmal André Gomes’ long shot that would’ve probably landed miles away from Oblak’s goal if it wasn’t for a deflection off Óliver Torres. It was only the very first corner Atletico conceded in the entire game – in 71th minute. Griezmann cleared it decently on the near post, the rebound went away to Mustafi, who miscontrolled it with his chest, went into a challenge against Godín and got pushed away into a position from which any kind of shot was already impossible. But the Uruguayan was too aggressive! He accidentally kneed his opponents’ butt and the ref was merciless – penalty…

Once Alcácer sent Oblak towards one corner and put the ball in the another, it was clear that the final 20 minutes would bring some unexpected excitement. The hosts tried to bounce back quickly with a fine Tiago’s shot that got collected smoothly by Domènech. The answer from Valencia was a long pass to another Portuguese midfielder on the pitch, André Gomes. He even managed to find Alcácer in the penalty area, but Paco was soon dispossessed by two Atleti players. Seconds after that, Juanfran and Fernando Torres missed excellent chances to make it 3-1. As the TV cameras registered, Diego Simeone looked utterly disappointed with the lack of a definite game-decider – and rightfully so.

Fortunately for him, even though Valencia had some hope, they still couldn’t figure the actual method to get through and equalize. Óliver and Tiago were constantly finding new ways to waste time by keeping the ball on the visitors’ half and without Feghouli, there was no realistic chance for the counterattacks. Bakkali, though promising and dedicated, was really kept under control by Juanfran and Piatti, coming up late, couldn’t really create anything better than one corner and one free-kick followed by Correa’s booking. Santi Mina has even found one decent chance thanks to his opponent’s miscontrol – and, instead of shooting, he crosses the ball straight to Oblak. Terrible!

So why this game was worse to watch than a BPL game? First of all: a Premier League manager would’ve subbed on 2 new players during the half-time and gone all-in; Nuno didn’t. Secondly, one team had a lot of confidence and the other hardly had any – and, in England, everyone has always a lot of faith in their abilities. Thirdly, those weren’t really the attacking, free-flowing sides La Liga used to produce; their tactical, cautious approach was too obvious to produce a 100% entertaining play England is known from. And, last but not least: the skill gap. To think that either Atletico or Valencia can threaten The Big Spanish Duo after such game… Nope, not going to happen. Even if skill-wise, they were both considerably better than Spurs or West Ham.

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