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Atletico Madrid are the kings of the clean sheet, while Villarreal have struggled in attack in the early weeks of the new season. A home win to nil is therefore the way to go in La Liga’s standout fixture this weekend.
|Atletico Madrid vs Villarreal Information|
|Teams||Atletico Madrid vs Villarreal|
|Location||Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, Madrid, Spain|
|Time||Sunday, 29 August 2021, 4.00 PM EDT|
|How to watch||ESPN|
During the 2010s Diego Simeone was associated with the 4-4-2 formation more than any other manager. While Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona revolution inspired countless copycats across Europe, a smaller group of managers focused instead on how to beat teams who tried to dominate possession by packing the midfield and pushing high up the pitch. His compact and narrow 4-4-2 brought Atletico tremendous success, including a La Liga title, two Europa Leagues and two appearances in the Champions League final.
Despite this sustained success over several seasons – or perhaps, in part, because of it – Simeone switched to a 3-5-2 formation last term. It would be wrong to say Atletico had gone stale, but the new system certainly marked a new era at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano. It has allowed Atletico to be more expansive in attack, while also retaining the structure and organization that has been present throughout Simeone’s tenure.
The wing-backs in the 3-5-2 are encouraged to push higher than the full-backs in the 4-4-2 ever did. Simeone has given his attacking players more of a license to interchange positions, while Koke has been repositioned as a deeper-lying midfielder who uses his passing quality to dictate the tempo. It would be a step too far to call Atletico 2.0 a flair team, and Simeone would no doubt roll back some of the changes if they began to adversely affect Atletico’s solidity. But his decision to freshen things up has already paid dividends, with the Colchoneros looking to win a second successive title this term.
They have got their campaign off to a fine start, with back-to-back wins over Celta Vigo and Elche. Stiffer challenges lie ahead, and Villarreal will not be pushovers this weekend, but Atletico should arguably be favorites for the title at this stage.
Winning the Europa League last season secured Villarreal a spot in the group stage of this year’s Champions League. They will hope to be in Europe’s premier competition again next term, this time via a top-four finish in La Liga. That will not be easy: Barcelona and Real Madrid might have got weaker in the last couple of years, but Atletico and Sevilla have got stronger. Those four teams are the clear favorites to qualify for the Champions League.
That is not to rule Villarreal out of the race, though. Granted, they did only finish seventh in 2020/21, but that was in part because they latterly turned their focus to the Europa League. Unai Emery, who has now won that tournament four times and reached the fifth final, is an astute tactician. Villarreal have also kept the bulk of their squad from last season intact, with star man Gerard Moreno retained despite reported interest from elsewhere.
Yet there is an argument that Emery’s incredible record in the Europa League shows he is better suited to knockout soccer than a 38-game league campaign. Last season’s final against Manchester United was a perfect match for the former Arsenal head coach. With Villarreal as underdogs, he was able to devise a strategy based on containing and countering the opposition’s threat.
Emery sometimes struggles when the boot is on the other foot and his own side are expected to take the initiative. That should not be an issue on Sunday, but it has already affected Villarreal this season: their two games to date have been 0-0 draws with Granada and Espanyol.
Villarreal are yet to score a goal this campaign and a trip to the Wanda Metropolitano does not exactly bode well for their hopes of breaking their duck this weekend. Atletico have had the best defensive record in La Liga in five of the last six years. They have not conceded more than 30 goals in a season since 2012/13. In winning the title last term, Atleti kept 18 clean sheets in 38 matches.
That, combined with Villarreal’s recent struggles in front of goal, will make Simeone confident that his team can shut out the Yellow Submarine this weekend. He will not be satisfied by that alone, though. With Barcelona still adjusting to life without Lionel Messi and Real Madrid under new management, Atletico have the chance to build up a lead at the top of the table in the next few weeks. Dropping points here would therefore be a disappointment.
Angel Correa is the most likely goal-getter, having found the back of the net eight times in his last 10 league appearances. BetMGM offers +350 on the Argentine as the first scorer, but the safer bet is an Atletico win to nil at +175.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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