Atletico’s new era brings familiar failings as Simeone doubts return
In a mirror image of their efforts in La Liga, Atletico delivered in the Champions League when written off and crumbled when there was even a hint of expectation.
They knocked out Liverpool at Anfield when nobody gave them a chance but when good form and a kind draw offered them a clear route to the final, they wilted, a 2-1 defeat sending Leipzig into the semis.
In La Liga, with the top two out of sight and their place in the top four in doubt, Atletico motored through the last five weeks unbeaten to clinch third.
But when held up as title challengers at the start of the season, after spending around 250 million euros and humiliating Real Madrid 7-3 in July, they floundered, winning six of their first 16 matches to sit seventh.
For a long time, Atletico have revelled in their underdog status, pitching themselves as the outsiders gatecrashing Europe’s wealthy elite.
In a pitch on Wednesday to English fans on social media about the merits of supporting the club, the first reason given read: “Competing against the La Liga and European giants isn’t easy. But through our values of hard work, effort, passion and teamwork, we’ve managed to close the gap.”
Financially, there is no doubt they come a distant third in Spain. They posted revenue figures of 384 million euros for last season, around half the 757 million of Real Madrid and 852 million of Barcelona.
In Deloitte’s ‘Football Money League’ published in January, which ranks Europe’s richest clubs, Atletico sat 13th for the second year running.
Simeone has become a victim of his own excellence, the failure to replicate the incredible 2014 title triumph or two stirring runs to the Champions League final taken as evidence of decline.
But what are Atletico now? There should have been no inferiority complex against Leipzig, who were playing in Germany’s fourth tier when Simeone took charge and third when Atletico were crowned Spanish champions.
They should have got closer to Real Madrid and Barcelona too, in a season when both were flawed, presenting a golden opportunity for an outsider to sneak in.
In that context, high expectations might not have been welcomed by Simeone but they were justified, and Atletico never got close to meeting them.
Questions about Simeone’s future have become the reflex action for disappointment, his defensive style of play celebrated when it succeeds and chastised when it fails.
– ‘Transition season‘ –
The contrast between the black shirts of Atleti, camped deep in their own half, against the white of Leipzig, quick, slick and full of attacking verve, was certainly stark.
It was tempting even to wonder if Julian Nagelsmann, Europe’s most exciting up-and-coming coach, was consigning the tactical methods of Simeone to the past.
Yet the time for a painful separation is surely not now, after three months of encouragement that, with a much shorter summer pause, could well extend into 2020/21.
Simeone has defended his team’s inconsistency by calling this a “transition season”, insisting the players signed last year, including the 126-million-euro Joao Felix, would always need time to bed in.
There were departures to get over too – Diego Godin, Antoine Griezmann and Rodri among them – personality gaps that would be missed but over time could be refilled.
For that process to complete, interest in the likes of Jan Oblak, Thomas Partey, Jose Gimenez and Saul Niguez this summer will have to be rebuffed.
And the evolution that many feel is needed could come through a new assistant coach in Nelson Vivas, who will bring fresh ideas after he replaces Mono Burgos, Simeone’s long-time number two.
Atletico have stagnated but as football is forced by the pandemic to stand still, they have a team that can grow.
In normal circumstances, Barcelona and Real Madrid would react to respective disappointments with aggression in the market but both are expected to start in September with much the same squad that finished in August.
Atletico, and Simeone, need to take advantage.
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