“HE is calm and has confidence in what he does and will direct us to get into the top four," said Atletico Madrid president Enrique Cerezo of the club’s manager, Diego Simeone.
And Simeone’s confidence in overcoming the predicament Altleti find themselves in upon La Liga’s resumption this weekend – currently sixth in the table – is well placed, having steered Los Colchoneros to a top-three finish in each of his seven full seasons in charge. They are, after all, only two points behind third-placed Sevilla.
But the Argentinian boss has some figuring out to do. Despite Atletico’s stunning Champions League triumph over Liverpool in their final pre-pandemic-shutdown fixture at Anfield in March, the usually imperious and imposing Spanish side have largely been lacklustre this term.
They have only lost four of their 27 league games to date, but they have been held to a draw 12 times, leaving them 13 points off the pace in a title race they ordinarily take an active role in.
Simeone’s men have been typically robust at the back, their trademark defensive organisation and doggedness having survived long-time stalwart Diego Godin’s departure for Inter Milan last summer to the extent they have conceded only 21 La Liga goals – a record only neighbours Real Madrid (19) can better.
But where once the Atletico attack complemented a fearsome defence by jabbing forward sharply, they have been a blunt instrument in the opposition’s box this season.
Athletic Bilbao – whom Atletico will face at San Mames on Sunday – are the only side in the top 13 to have scored fewer than Atleti’s miserly 31 La Liga goals so far this season, an offensive output amounting to less than half of league leaders Barcelona’s.
Antoine Griezmann’s summer sale to Barcelona – a move which is yet to bear fruit for any party – has understandably upset Atletico’s attacking chemistry. Los Colchoneros looked to the future in their replacement for the outgoing World Cup winner, signing Joao Felix from Benfica for a club-record fee of £113m. The elegant, gifted 20-year-old has every chance of reaching the levels Griezmann hit during his five prolific years in Madrid, but the Portuguese’s progress will be a slow burn, as evidenced by his inconsistent form and humble four-goal La Liga return to date.
Alvaro Morata, whose initial loan switch from Chelsea will officially become a permanent deal next month, is Atletico’s top league scorer this season with just eight goals, while recent big-name additions Thomas Lemar (zero goals and assists) and the returning Diego Costa (two goals) have added little to the attacking equation.
️ Atletico Madrid president Enrique Cerezo: "We are very special, we can win a Champions League without an audience. It could be our year." pic.twitter.com/yIntgeptAZ
— Goal (@goal) June 8, 2020
“Playing Atletico I would say is one of the most difficult things in the life of a football player,” cautioned Jurgen Klopp in the build-up to Liverpool’s Champions League last-16 meeting with Simeone’s side.
“If there’s one team where you have to be at your absolute best, it’s Atletico. They give you absolutely no presents. If you work as hard as possible, you have a chance. If you don’t do that, you have no chance.”
But that hasn’t been the case often enough this season. While the Wanda Metropolitano remains a formidable fortress, easy points have been given up away from home. Atleti have only won three times on the road in 13 attempts in La Liga and were lucky to escape with a point in their last away outing, a 1-1 draw with bottom-of-the-table Espanyol in on 1 March.
It is likely that Simeone is overseeing a period of transition at present. Griezmann and Godin have gone, and speculation is rife that outstanding central midfield duo Saul Niguez and Thomas Partey will make big-money exits when the transfer window re-opens. Around £230m has been spent on Felix, Lemar and Morata in the last couple of years, too, with all requiring time to bed in.
If Simeone can ensure another top-four finish and a strong Champions League showing this season while sculpting the third generation of his Atletico team, he should be applauded for a job well done.
But such relative success is far from assured as yet. Atletico’s upset of Liverpool showed they can still conjure the classic Simeone style, producing a potent counter-punch to punctuate their rope-a-dope deep-defensive act. If they are to make the best of this in-between season they find themselves in, they must rediscover their ruthlessness.