Atlético Madrid and the crisis that wasn't
Diego Simeone spoke of the inevitable “anxiety” that accompanies a lack of goals after Atlético Madrid again failed to score against Villarreal on Friday night in La Liga. Missing chances begets missing even bigger chances, and on and on it goes. Atlético Madrid have learned very quickly the problems that stem from missing these chances can grow exponentially if not quickly reversed. Heading into their key Champions League clash on Wednesday night against Lokomotiv Moscow, they hadn’t scored in five hours, weren’t sure where the next goal was going to come from and were forced to endure whispers of a crisis before Christmas.
As you can see by the trajectory of their expected goals, they haven’t been playing poorly, but their distinct lack of an effective plan in the penalty area is frustrating. They remain defensively resolute (even more so, in fact) but their purpose now, to take the lead and hold onto it, is proving difficult.
Last season, after losing to Juventus in the Round of 16 without as much as landing a glove on their opponents in Turin, and flopping out of the La Liga title race before Luis Suárez had shaken off the annual summer rust, Simeone knew it would be a summer of change at the Wanda Metropolitano; to an extent, he welcomed it. And when Atlético Madrid beat Real Madrid 7–3 in New Jersey this summer, fans hoped this year would be different.
In a long-overdue overhaul of their defence, they waved adios to Diego Godín, Juanfran and Felipe Luis. Barcelona pried Antoine Griezmann from their grip while Marcos Llorente and Héctor Herrera arrived to shore up the midfield. There was talk of progressive football, a futuristic 4-3-3, which they have implemented at times, but their execution as the protagonists in games has been poor.
Simeone said this is a year of transition, but their new status as an elite football club does not permit the use of such vocabulary, much less as an excuse. The anxiety Simeone mentioned after the Villarreal is palpable and was evident again on Wednesday night against Lokomotiv Moscow. However, this time they turned that anxiety into urgency from the very start. Maybe that’s what’s missing? Atlético Madrid might have the talent and remain sharp in knockout tournaments, but a certain weariness has set in during run-of-the-mill La Liga games this year, which they don’t seem to know how to shake off.
What are their problems?
Their sluggish campaign thus far can be put down to the integration of new players, a change of mentality or just plain old poor luck. Then there's the loss of their talisman, and need to wait for his teenage replacement to settle. When you throw all of these ingredients together, that aroma you smell is indeed anxiety wafting from the crockpot.
Diego Simeone says he would prefer a game to finish 1–0 because a 4–3 scoreline indicates a number of mistakes were made. So, while new talent necessitated a certain shift in mentality, and prompted Atléti to play different, more attacking formations and dominate games with possession, Simeone has not turned into a risk-taking manager overnight.
Atlético are transitioning into a more ball-dominant team. Given how teams set up against them, they've had little choice. This is part of their problem.
They don’t press high enough to win the ball back in awkward positions for the opposition. In fact, they have the second-fewest pressures in La Liga and are dead last when it comes to pressure regains. They are being asked to break down set defences which has not been and never was their style.
They are below league average when it comes to dribbling past players and their pace to goal is closer to Real Valladolid, who are last in the league, than to Granada, who sit ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid. They are adapting to a new way of thinking, playing and executing in attack but it is slow, reveals evident confusion, and often feels ultimately futile.
If Simeone was to trust his defence, allowing João Félix, Morata, Álvaro Morata, Thomas Lemar and Saúl to press with impunity, the opposition may become more susceptible, leading to more favourable chances for Atlético. The xG conceded might increase, but given the players at his disposal — their age profile and the energy that brings — Simone must overcome his caution to get the most from this squad.
That's easier said than done. They have new players in all three lines of the field, leading to issues of integration and trust.
A brand new defence
Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi have injected much-needed energy on the flanks for Atlético after Juanfran and Filipe Luis departed in the summer. Trippier, in particular, is perfect for Simeone. He is in his late 20s, has experience in Europe and possesses a perfect blend of energy, experience, willingness to be coached and a desire to prove himself in new circumstances. He has quickly transformed himself into another version of Koke, not tactically, but as a player whose development is all about encouragement and willingness to do what he’s told. Despite playing at right-back, at times this season he's functioned as the creative hub, and his delivery into the box has been exquisite.
Lodi, on the left, is similar but younger and has missed a few games. With no natural replacement, Saul has had to play there at times, causing him to lose his own rhythm and sense of place in the team.
Simeone has been forced to play Felipe and Mario Hermoso at the back given José Giménez and Stefan Savić’s injury problems, but they are the real deal. Their non-penalty xG conceded is ludicrously low, even for a Diego Simeone-coached side.
The revamp of Atlético's midfield brought in Héctor Herrera, Marcos Llorente and saw Gabi’s torch passed to Thomas Partey. The Ghanian is having a season that should surely interest the best teams in Europe. A midfield of Koke, Saul and Partey seems it has everything a midfield needs — work-rate, incisive passing and running, athleticism to get into the box and to get back too. However, their creativity has waned and Saúl has regressed, currently mired in his worst form since emerging onto the scene under Simeone. Getting him back to his best could be the key. His involvement in expected goals is just above league average but he’s struggling in every other aspect.
His driving runs and threats from deep could change Atlético’s fortunes overnight, as they're exactly what the team are missing. Their 4.56 deep completions is third in the league but they can’t seem to dribble the ball into dangerous areas to save their lives. Take a look at the comparison between current Saúl and Saúl from two years ago to see how his pressures and dribbles have dropped, and almost every other stat has fallen. He is a shell of the player he once was.
Dare I say it? There is no problem with Atlético’s attack. They’re just not being helped by their midfield and have missed some chances, leading to talk of a crisis. Félix, Morata, Diego Costa and Ángel Correa lead the way with shots per game. Thomas Partey is next but after that, Lodi and Felipe, then Koke and Saúl way down the list. The midfield needs to produce more of an attacking threat in a hurry. But the major goal-scoring issue is that they simply aren't finding the back of the net as much as their xG suggests they should. That's the kind of problem that eventually corrects itself.
On an individual level, the team has plenty of talent and room to grow. Correa could be the answer to their creativity problems. On his day, Correa can be electric. The problem is, it’s very rarely his day. His mazy dribbles often confuse even his teammates and there is very little consistency in his game. He has Simeone’s trust now, though, and is playing more regularly. Time will tell if the 24-year-old can develop a level of consistency that will see him play a role in Simeone’s side going forward.
In every game, Félix shows glimpses of his brilliance. His feathery touches are a joy to watch, his agility and speed when running at opponents have even the most cynical of football fans salivating. Yet these flashes are not enough for him to truly dominate a game. While his €126 million price tag might suggest Atlético brought in a ready-made superstar, the club always knew they would have to wait for the real João Félix to emerge. He is shooting plenty but needs to be more involved in building play from central areas. That might be helped by getting him the ball in transition so he can take advantage of back-pedalling defenders.
The good news is that Atlético Madrid should be fine. The bad news is that Atlético Madrid should be fine. Their xG is up there with the best in the league, but Simeone’s side don’t appear to have reached the level where they might challenge for a title. They have lost ground in La Liga’s top four race but are through to the last 16 of the Champions League, where they will be eyeing another charge at the trophy that eludes them. However, they'll need to start scoring goals.
Simeone might have to embrace the mayhem of counter-pressing and winning in transition if his team continue to struggle in front of goal. Getting Saúl and Koke playing their best, most effective football is vital to a successful season. The problem is that by the time he does embrace some form of chaos, Atlético Madrid might have nothing to lose. In other words, they might have nothing to win.