Saiguhan Elancheran has a look at why Atletico Madrid are struggling this time around in La Liga.
It was not long ago when Atletico Madrid missed out on a chance to go top of the table as they lost 2-0 at Real Sociedad. At the time of writing, it was just six weeks ago in fact. Atleti were standing with 18 points from 10 games and needed a win to become the league leaders for the time being. From the loss at Real Sociedad, Atleti have seen a slump in their form and have gone way behind the league leaders and local rivals Real Madrid. They have taken just 10 points from their last 6 games which is very low considering their standards. They now stand with 28 points from 16 games. Most importantly they have dropped points in certain winnable fixtures. Though it is true that they have topped their Champions League group above Bayern Munich, they have been underperforming in the league.
Their dip in form is due to the combination of several factors.
Atletico Madrid’s general play has been different by a certain margin. Their 53.29 percent possession average is up two points comparing their highest average possession. They are on the ball more than in the past, leading to a little more lethargy and delay in their build-up play this season. Simeone’s players have looked clueless for large parts of the game in Spain and he has had to accept the underperformance in most occasions. After the 3-0 defeat at Villareal, he said, “I think that in the first half we had four chances. [Antoine] Griezmann’s hit to the post, [Kevin] Gamerio’s and [Angel] Correa’s, and Villarreal, obviously, took advantage of the chances it had to score, it made them be more comfortable in the match.
I go away with the feeling that the team fights, works… that the team is trying its best to find the best situations to win and in the last games, especially when trying to score, we’re not having luck and that makes us lose. We have to work, because it’s the only way to improve.”
The performances in Champions League group stages too would’ve taken the strength and stamina as they seek to win it after two heart-breaking final losses to local rivals Real Madrid in the span of just three years. And they had taken huge efforts and made sacrifices in the Group stages which might have led to the loss of form in the league.
Also the transfer requests made by Simeone were not supported by the board. He needed a talisman to support Griezmann upfront. They could not afford Diego Costa, Edinson Cavani, Gonzalo Higuain or Alvaro Morata. Instead they found Kevin Gameiro. He has scored six goals so far and played well enough. But the club he left, Sevilla, are five points better off than Atletico and Gameiro is not the game-changing player that Simeone wanted in the summer.
On the other hand, Atletico’s main man Antoine Griezmann has not provided the goal scoring returns his manager would have expected. He has scored just 6 goals in 15 appearances so far. Their defence has also been weak and they have shipped in 14 goals already in just 16 games. This is very high when compared to last season’s tally of just 18 goals in 38 games. Also the lack of depth has added to their woes. Fernando Torres is the third-choice forward. At 32 he has played his best football. It is highly effective at times but given that he is past his prime, Simeone should have better options from the bench.
Their away form will definitely be a cause for concern among the fans. Simeone’s side have taken just eight points away from home out of a potential 18. At this rate, they would finish the season with 25 away league points, a far lower away points total than those secured in the Argentine coach’s previous seasons – 32 in 2012/13, 41 in 2013/14, 31 in 2014/15 and 40 in 2015/16. In the 14 matches played so far, 7 at home and 7 away, they have scored 19 at home and 10 on the road. This goes to show their lack of attacking intent in the away games.
The new stadium situation has also caused them a lot of disturbances off late. They have been shaky in the final year at Vicente Calderon. The pressure of performing well to bid adieu may have caught up to them. In the first game of the season they drew 1-1 against Alaves at home. Since then, they’ve dropped seven points at home. The 3-0 loss at the hands of Real Madrid in their last ever Madrid derby at Vicente Calderon was a humiliating sight.
They have also dropped points in some easy fixtures considering their standards – Leganes 0-0 Atletico, Real Sociedad 2-0 Atletico, Atletico 0-0 Espanyol and Villareal 3-0 Atletico. Much should be spoken about the decrease in intensity in the team as they have given away less fouls compared to the previous seasons. They have lacked to do things in the “Simeone-way” or the “Cholismo style” to be prompt.
Augusto Fernandez’s knee injury in September has made Simeone change his approach in his midfield. He has found a solution to the problem in the team’s build-up play and ability to provide adequate cover for the back four. Koke’s transition from a wing to a more centered role was key in the planning of the squad for the current season. This change theoretically allows the team to be better balanced and the entrance of players like Angel Correa or Nico Gaitán in the XI would be more natural. The players supplied the team with an improvement in the build-up of plays but the team lost balance and defensive strength.
Tiago reappeared and produced a brilliant performance against Osasuna. His seniority and positioning suits the team while attacking and defending. But he is 35 and his physical state is not the most suitable which make him suffer in physically tough games, like the one played in Villarreal earlier this month – a 3-0 thrashing.
Simeone has to deal with the absences of Thomas Partey and Caio Henrique who will have to play for their national teams during the African Cup of Nations and the South American squad of U20 teams respectively. Both of them are not central to his plans but could be useful as spare players to give Koke or Saul Niguez some rest. This is the state of Atletico’s midfield and would definitely play a big part in defining their play in the games to come.
The absence of Jan Oblak will also play a decisive role. He is set to miss four months with a shoulder injury. His replacement, Miguel Angel Moya, is solid and even answered a few of his doubters with key saves in the weekend win over Las Palmas. However, the 32-year-old is unable to match Oblak’s commanding of his area and ability to collect crosses. It’s an integral part of how Atletico like to set up defensively, which makes the goalkeeper’s absence all the more concerning.
Looming speculations about Simeone’s dream to coach Inter have also become one of the factors. He has shortened his contract by 2 years from summer 2020 to summer 2018. But one will now have to wonder whether he will see out his contract. Mauricio Pochettino’s name is increasingly being spoken by the fans and it will be no wonder if the Spurs manager replaces him should he leave London.
His son Giovanni, the 21-year-old who plays up front for Serie A side Genoa, admitted recently that dad Diego was bound to take over at Inter Milan at some point. And when asked about it Diego said: ‘My sons and my wife, my father, everyone knows that one day I will coach Inter. It is not anything new. My future is abundantly clear.’
The second half will be interesting to watch from an Atletico perspective. The league title is out of reach as 12 points separate Atletico and local rivals and league leaders Real Madrid. A top four finish has to be the aim now for Simeone and his players, but unless they improve their performances, even that will be an unattainable target. Being the two time runners up in CL and league winners two seasons ago, the Rojiblancos are underperforming to everyone’s surprise and have huge things to worry about.
Note: Written after the game between Real Madrid and Granada which ended 5-0.