On Thursday, Diego Simeone inked a new deal with Atletico Madrid, one that will see him stick around in Madrid until 2022. The deal was announced shortly after Spanish media had begun writing their obituaries about Simeone’s team — claiming it was the end of an era, and that we’re no longer witnessing the greatness of Atletico, the team that was so tactically sound just a couple years ago.
But that Atletico are deemed as a team that’s suffering a painful death, all at a time where they lie third-place in La Liga and are going into a Champions League knockout tie against Juventus, only illustrates the bar they’ve set for themselves — a bar which was non-existent before Simeone’s arrival.
In the 1999 – 2000 season, Atletico Madrid beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. They didn’t beat their cross-town rivals again for another 13 seasons — a staggering streak that finally ended when Simeone came along. They followed that up by going undefeated against Real in La Liga for three years, outscoring them 11 – 4 in the process. During Simeone’s reign, Atletico became league champions, never finished below third, and made two Champions League final appearances. That’s the bar.
Somewhere along the way, Atletico stopped exceeding old expectations and started falling short of new ones. This is a team built on their defensive identity and a “we’ll outwork you and win every 50/50” mindset. They’ve consistently scraped narrow wins through tenacity and defensive organization; and despite creating very little offensively, have had efficiency in front of goal. As expectations rose, as Antoine Griezmann gained stardom, and as the club began spending, Simeone felt pressure to make the team look better offensively. They’ve yet to improve.
For years, Atletico’s defensive scheme was almost impenetrable. No team showed more patience without the ball than them. They closed the half-spaces and coaxed teams into switching the field to an open player, only to snuff out space as soon as the ball got there. Against Barcelona in the 2016 Champions League quarter-finals, they churned out one of the greatest defensive performances from a side this decade.
They are not that far removed from that side defensively. This season, they’ve conceded the fewest goals in La Liga until now, and have the second lowest xGA of anyone in the country. But they’ve failed big tests. They were blown away by a rampant Borussia Dortmund side 4 – 0 earlier this season, where their wing-backs were exposed and unable to deny overloads, and Griezmann — Atletico’s only consistent attacking threat — was denied space by Favre’s suffocating press.
Nearly four months later, Atletico conceded three at home to Real Madrid in a game where they pressed aggressively and unnerved Santiago Solari’s men early; but had their right flank torn apart by Vinicius Jr before capitulating defensively in the second half — falling apart vertically and spreading themselves thin defending counters.
Atletico are still fine as an elite defensive side. They coast through the majority of La Liga games unscathed at the back. It remains all the more impressive when you realize how much time their defensive stalwarts have missed through injury this season. Juanfran, Lucas Hernandez, and Diego Godin have all missed nine games; Gimenez has missed 12; Felipe Luis has missed 10; Stefan Savic has missed 14. That Atletico have maintained such good defensive numbers despite their health issues is remarkable.
Those defensive numbers bode well for Atletico — they haven’t yet let their identity slip. They now have their defenders healthy, and the first half against Real Madrid was encouraging enough to think they can maintain their defensive control against a dangerous side like Juventus in the Champions League..
Atletico’s struggles will come mostly on the offensive end, where they just don’t create nearly enough as they should as an elite side. Simeone has tried possession-based schemes in the past two seasons and it hasn’t looked convincing. He’s tried to decrease the offensive load of Griezmann by surrounding him with technical midfielders, fast wingers, and traditional finishers — but none of the offensive pieces around him have been on the Frenchman’s level. Atletico’s xG is currently lower than all but five La Liga sides.
Griezmann has been really good, but he’s alone. Even with an Alpha-Grizzy pulling the strings offensively, the team labors to spring efficient counterattacks after their defensive line comes away with an intervention. The attack is slow. The team just doesn’t have a high enough block to get numbers in transition quickly, meaning Griezmann, or one of the other attacks in question, has to slow the tempo and wait for others to catch up. The scouting report is out — most teams have a good enough transition defense to stifle Simeone’s slow counters.
New signings Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins were supposed to help bridge that gap — but Lemar has been underwhelming, and Martins has already been sent out on loan. Angel Correa has brilliant moments, and is quick and dangerous, but he’s not been consistent. Thomas Partey has a stinging long-distance shot and has chipped in sporadically, but he’s ghosted during big games. Diego Costa is not the same Diego Costa as before, and Alvaro Morata is, well, it’s unclear if even the supreme motivator Simeone can light a fire under him and unearth his form from two seasons ago. Morata is low on confidence, extremely self-critical, and has made a habit of missing sitters.
That leaves Saul, who’s been dangerous arriving at the top of the box to meet a cut-back. But he’s scored just two goals this season, and no Atletico player other than Griezmann has scored more than two goals total this campaign. The Frenchman leads the team in goals, assists, and key passes, and it’s not close.
Griezmann needs help, but getting him a wingman is easier said than done given the tough market. Atletico’s budget has increased over the years, but it’s been hard for them to attract stars to play alongside their main man, which has led them to overpay for players like Lemar (Lemar’s signing in a vacuum made sense. He can get the ball up the field quickly, play as a two-way winger, and put in accurate crosses to Diego Costa and Morata. He had one flash of brilliance against Real Madrid, but not enough, and certainly not enough over the course of the season). That Griezmann resigned with the team this summer was a huge victory for them in itself.
None of their offensive problems will get any easier against Juventus in a fascinating Champions League encounter. Juventus are not a high-pressing team, nor do they care to counter-press much (although, head coach Massimiliano Allegri will implement a press sporadically throughout certain games, he just doesn’t use it as the focus of his defensive scheme). They will put emphasis on slowing Atletico’s already sluggish counters. They’ll put bodies behind the ball. Leonardo Bonucci has had his moments switching off when defending crosses, but both he and Giorgio Chiellini have been brilliant. It will be tough for Simeone’s men to crack Juve, and if they do, they’ll have to be air-tight defensively while coming away with a narrow victory with a goal from… somewhere.
Juve may look to man-mark Rodri Hernandez — a tactic they’ve used in the past to unnerve the opposing team’s defensive midfielder while thwarting the offensive funnel. There are a lot of different tools Allegri can use to make it tough for Atleti to transition into a fluid offense.
Atletico have also had trouble defending pacy full-backs who bulldoze the flank. As Juve hunt for overloads with Joao Cancelo and Alex Sandro, they’ll look to get the ball into two behemoths in Mario Mandzukic and Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s tough to defend, but not impossible, given Simeone’s resources and tactical acumen. Atletico can pack the flanks, as they’re good at doing. They may also look to press and hound Miralen Pjanic to make those cross-field switches less possible — daring Bonucci or Chiellini to act as a ball-carrier from the backline instead. That’s fascinating about this entire tie is that neither of these teams are prone to exposing themselves defensively.
Whether they get past Juventus or not, Atletico have a ton of questions that need answering. This may not be a dead team yet, but they are an aging one. The heartbeat of the club, Diego Simeone, has signed a new deal. His tactics may have grown stale and unimaginative, but letting him guide the ship he did so well to navigate in the first place was the right move.
But what of the ageing core? Gabi already moved on. This is likely Diego Godin’s last year with the club. Felipe Luis is one of this generation’s most underrated full-backs, but both he and Juanfran are the wrong side of 30. Diego Costa has regressed. All of those important pieces need replacing, and doing so is going to be difficult.
Now it’s on the board and Simeone to get the transfer market right. They already won big by resigning Griezmann, purchasing Rodri from Villarreal, and striking gold with Lucas Hernandez who’s been a revelation for them. Saul will be at the Wanda long-term, and Koke is still young. But other pieces need filling. Simeone has a big job to ensure those obituaries don’t resurface.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association