Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone defended underperforming Antoine Griezmann and hailed his side’s ability to stick in the game until the end after Saturday afternoon’s late 1-0 win away to Deportivo La Coruna.
After a first half which saw neither team manage a shot on target, there was not much more entertainment after the break — with Antoine Griezmann missing Atletico’s best chance early in the second period.
Simeone then surprisingly withdrew star forward Griezmann for defender Jose Maria Gimenez with 10 minutes left, and the game seemed headed for 0-0 until Thomas Partey smashed home from 20 yards when Gabi rolled a 91st-minute free kick into his path.
With his team still unbeaten 11 games into the La Liga season, albeit with just two wins in their last nine in all competitions, the Rojiblancos coach said in his postgame news conference that his team were showing they could compete and pick up points even when things were not going their way.
“What gave us the chance to win the game was staying in it until the last minute,” Simeone said. “Until the final minute it was clear that a chance would come. The dead ball came, something we needed, and Thomas scored a great goal.
“We have not lost yet [in La Liga]. Only points Valencia have dropped at home were to us. Only points Barca have dropped were to us too. If we have 23 points, and Griezmann has just scored two goals, that is a good sign.”
Griezmann, a €100 million target for Manchester United last summer, has just three goals in total all season and has not scored in his last seven club outings.
Simeone said the tactical decision to replace the forward with the versatile Gimenez, who went into a midfield holding role, had worked as planned.
“Griezmann is one of the players on our team, a good player for our team,” he said. “I wanted to strengthen the team [with the substitution]. [Depor] were almost playing with four forwards and our team was starting to break up. I thought that by strengthening the centre we would have a better chance. It went as I had hoped.”
Simeone admitted that morale was not high among his squad, after Tuesday’s 1-1 home draw with outsiders Qarabag almost certainly ended their chances of progress in the Champions League.
“You always feel better after winning, but clearly we need to improve,” he said. “And we will improve, for sure, with the path we are on. By making this effort, you improve. And I have a very committed team. When they played like this, after the blow on Tuesday, I am proud of them, nothing more.
“We are playing much better than we were last season. We have three points more than this stage last year. After these six years we are in a privileged position, and will get criticised when we do not win, and must accept that.”
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan