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Atletico Madrid’s lost identity in an inconsistent season

Atletico Madrid's inconsistent season

Atletico Madrid is a team built that is built and coached to frustrate the opposition.

Diego Simeone’s low block to counter attacks allowed the side to go to two Champions League finals in a three year span. It saw off Liverpool in the Champions League round of 16 in the 2019/20 season, despite Liverpool entering as the defending champions and eventual Premier League winners. Of course, it also guaranteed Atletico Madrid a spot in this season’s Champions League quarterfinals courtesy of a clinical, and stereotypical, 1-0 win at Old Trafford.

However, that tactic can backfire. It contributed to Atleti’s seven losses. Despite having more wins than Barcelona and Sevilla entering the March international break, Diego Simeone’s side sits in fourth.

This is good enough for a Champions League berth into next season’s Champions League. Yet, it is a stark contrast to the side’s expectations entering the season coming off a LaLiga crown.

Despite adding elite players to an already great and well-organized side, this season is a living nightmare for Atletico. The side’s league struggles are one thing. However, Atletico barely escaped the toughest group in the Champions League. Atletico earned seven points in six games against Liverpool, Porto and Milan.

Unexpected losses, lofty expectations and a loss of the identity that created Atletico de Madrid led to worry and anxiety throughout the Wanda Metropolitano. As Los Rojiblancos anxiously fight for a top-four spot in LaLiga, Atleti fans wonder how the skid started.

Atletico’s identity

The last decade of Atletico Madrid revolves around one man: Diego Simeone.

The iconic and charismatic manager led Los Rojiblancos to two LaLiga titles, a Copa del Rey and two Europa League championships. Plus, he has the two silver medals in the Champions League. His managerial style features a rigid, defensive 4-4-2 block. Simeone places great emphasis on having a compact, hard-working defense. On the opposite end, Atleti quickly counter-attacks for big chances. Also, players like Koke and the Gabi methodically build up their offense with possession and patiently look for opportunities.

Along with star keeper Jan Oblak, Simeone thrived. Defenders like Diego Godín, Filipe Luis, and Juanfran impressing in their offense. Joao Felix, Antoine Griezmann, and Fernando Torres’ creativity helped Los Colchoneros score goals. All pieces helped Atleti elevate to new heights, and gradually grow the club’s trophy case.

This tactic was more apparent than ever in the side’s title-winning season in 2021. They conceded the least goals in the league, 25. Moreover, the side’s tenacity led to the most tackles of any club in LaLiga at 704. Atletico relied on this stalwart defense to cover up for a lackluster offense. In fact, Diego Simeone’s side left it for the last matchday to clinch the title.

Luis Suarez, who scored 21 goals in the league, led the ecstatic celebrations. Suarez was a vital part of the team, providing an additional finisher with clinical precision. The former Barca forward even scored the winning goal in the club’s last game. Almost perfectly, he fit Simeone’s tactical schemes, like Torres and Diego Costa. Coupled with Felix or Correa, Los Colchoneros imagined boundless goals in the Uruguayan’s stint at Atletico. However, the star striker is past his prime at 35.

Atletico Madrid’s inconsistent season

The lows

Atleti’s skid stayed dormant until late October. They kept pace with Real Madrid, including a crucial victory over a dysfunctional Barcelona squad. Los Colchoneros headed into a home match against Real Sociedad trying to move up a place or two in the table.

La Real put two past Atleti before Suarez scored twice from the spot, earning Atleti an unlikely point. Another scrap of a fixture saw Enis Bardhi score a brace from penalties, an ode to the physicality of the match against Levante. They then dropped to sixth, a far cry from Real Madrid’s first. The rest of the season has been the same old story: Atletico Madrid rising and falling and rising to fourth, fiercely contending with many other clubs for a Champions League spot.

Take a 3-2 loss to Liverpool that endangered their hopes at a Champions League title in the group stage. Antoine Griezmann’s first-half brace bridged an early 2-0 gap. His pressure against a vaunted Liverpool defense pushed momentum in favor of the hosts.

Simeone, clad in black as usual, yelled and gestured wildly at his backline. After all, his defense gave up two inside 13 minutes. This speaks to the disparity between this season’s Atletico side and those of the past.

Fifteen goals. Atletico conceded that many goals in a six game span. Over that time, Diego Simeone’s side fell out of the Supercopa de España and Copa del Rey. Simultaneously, the side plummeted down the LaLiga table, a consequence of Atletico Madrid’s inconsistent season.

Defense costs them points, and the first step to solving it is seizing its identity once again.

Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions league in 2016. (Photo Credit: AFP)

Crossroads

This season is more lacking of the Cholismo, the defining tactic of Atleti for ages. Unlike recent seasons, Atletico concedes more goals than their top-tier counterparts. One word to describe it would be, simply, leaky.

A slew of injuries and a rare down year for Jan Oblak are factors in Simeone’s porous defense. Atletico Madrid can become more efficient on defense with stability, something the side is lacking.

The main reason they are still contending for a Champions League place is because of offense. Headlined by Joao Felix, Angel Correa, and Luis Suarez, Atleti is dangerous in a variety of ways. Felix’s creativity combines well with the finishing and direct nature of Correa and Suarez.

Atleti is now coming to a crossroads. Diego Simeone must decide if he wants to build on the offense that buoyed this side to its current spot. Or, he can revert back to the solidity of defense that brought success in years prior.

Beyond repair?

So far, the executive board of the club tried to fill the gaping hole in defense with new signings in the transfer market. They bought wingback Daniel Wass and Lille defender Reinildo Mandava in the winter. So far, the signings made an impact on their season. Reinildo even appeared in both games against Manchester United.

The real question is whether the Atleti defense, previously gritty, hardened, and flexible, can withstand another round of attacks from Europe’s elite in the Champions League.

It also starts in LaLiga. Atleti’s defensive form over the recent weeks is something to be proud of. Over the side’s last seven games, Atletico conceded just three goals. Fittingly, Atletico advanced in the UEFA Champions League and rattled off five-straight wins in the league.

Now, Atletico enters the international break preparing for another trip to Manchester in the Champions League.

Manchester City, one of the competition’s betting favorites, provides a massive challenge for Simeone’s side. The possession-oriented, ‘wear-you-down’ style of Pep Guardiola’s City will be challenging for Atleti.

Atletico Madrid is firm underdogs in their quest for a Champions League title. Regardless, teams should not underestimate the side’s prowess despite Atletico Madrid’s inconsistent season.

Players to watch

Jose Gimenez and Stefan Savic, who are helping Atleti win over many LaLiga squads, are quietly making up one of the best center-back partnerships in Europe. When the two are together, Atleti concedes fewer goals and has room to take more risks. Yet the two are injured a lot. They missed a total of 16 games due to injuries and illnesses together. Savic, recovering from a muscle injury, will be unavailable for the match. Los Rojiblancos are counting on them to lead the way towards European success in the future.

For now, the depth of Atleti’s bench will be stretched when it comes to defense. Savic, Daniel Wass, Mario Hermoso, and Sime Vrsaljko suffered injuries. Gimenez, Reinildo, often-injured Felipe, and more will need to step up, as the core principle of Atleti’s tactics commands. To succeed in this new era, Atletico Madrid’s inconsistent season must be solved by returning to what made it a European power.

TITLE PHOTO: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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