Football NewsTuesday 22nd November 2016

Guillem Balague: Atletico Madrid - dying of success?

Guillem Balague: Atletico Madrid - dying of success?

The American woman footballing legend Mia Hamm once said that “it is more difficult to stay at the top than it is to get there.”

Atletico boss, Diego Simeone would concur.

When he took over at the Vicente Calderon at the end of 2011, the side had just lost to third tier Albacete in the Copa del Rey. What he found was a club in disarray, riddled with intrigue and in-fighting with morale amongst players, directors, fans and the media at an all time low; the only way was up.

By the end of that season Atletico had won the Europa League beating Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in the final in Bucharest. The following season his team hit the floor running winning the UEFA Super Cup and also won the Copa del Rey against Real Madrid 2-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu and secured Champions league football with a third place finish in the league.

The first league title since 1996 was secured the following season, although it ended with heartbreak and a sense of anti-climax when Simeone’s men came within a minute of securing the Champions league against Real in the final in Lisbon, before conceding and then losing 4-1 in extra time.

But most importantly, Atletico were once again sat at football’s top table and the man mainly responsible for taking them back to where they belonged was Diego (‘El Cholo’) Simeone, the prickly, obsessive, footballing fanatic from Buenos Aires.

And now it looks like the wheels on the bus - if not exactly falling off - are certainly loosening on the runaway success story that has been Atletico Madrid.

So what’s gone wrong?

After last year’s Champions League final which they once again agonisingly lost to Real Madrid, this time on penalties, Simeone announced that he was thinking about his future.

The impression he gave was that he had pushed this team to its very limits and this was as good as things were going to get.

In the end he was convinced to stay, not least because all the big names said they would, and also because there was the historical move to the new, state of the art, La Peineta stadium to look forward to.

In the end, however, not everyone was convinced about his reasons for staying and doubts began to emerge. When that happens at a club like Atletico which bases it philosophy on passion, commitment, hunger and an 'us against the world’ , siege mentality, attitude, then the first cracks will begin to appear in what, up to that point, have looked like solid, inpenetrable walls.

A vintage display from Cristiano Ronaldo gave Real Madrid all three points in a feisty affair against Atletico …

On the pitch this is an Atletico side now setting itself up more as an attacking force rather than a defensive fortress.

So with doubts in mind and a squad made to attack, points were dropped at the start of the campaign against clubs like Leganes and Alaves, two sides that Atletico would expect to have beaten. As a consequence Simeone began to tinker with the way the team was set up.

Sometimes Koke would play in midfield with Saul, sometimes with Gabi or with Carrasco as one of the attacking midfielders.

The team now has more shots at goal and attacks better, especially against teams that defend deep. The downside to that is that they become weaker defensively, and it is Atletico’s defensive strengths that has taken them to where they are.

The first signs appeared last week when skipper Gabi said that with Koke in the midfield this was an Atletico that was weaker defensively before a respectful Koke unsurprisingly announced that he begged to differ.

Inherently the problem is that while Gabi feels more secure playing in a crowded midfield that controls the game by suffocating the life out of the opposition, Koke feels happier running the show in a more expansive, effusive system.

Unfortunately with that comes one of the major problems which is a lack of intensity, for so long the club’s hallmark, and conspicuous by its absence against Real Madrid last weekend.

Also going AWOL is some of the attention to detail the club is known for and this was most evident as the game drew to an end with Koke complaining to his team mates about not receivng the ball while some of his colleagues looked to do their own thing.

The verbal clash between Koke and his coach near the end summed it up.

So where do we go form here?

Do we return to Simeone’s original gamestyle that brought so much success or do we persevere with the new attacking model which is a process that might take some time to come to fruition?

More importantly does Simeone have the patience to wait for it to begin to work?

Now, once again, we will see what Simeone is really made of because if he reverts to defensive type then it will be in stark contrast to the squad he has available to him at this moment in time.

Statistics may not be the full story but they are nonetheless revealing.

When it works, of course it can be exhilarating. In four matches against Celta Vigo, Sporting Gijon, Granada and Malaga this is an Atletico side that hit no fewer than 20 goals.

That’s the good news.

The flip side of that is that while In 38 league games last season they conceded just 18 goals. this time around after just 12 games their defence has already been breached 11 times.

In their last three defeats against Sevilla, Real Sociedad and Real Madrid they have failed to score. Griezmann has not found the net for five games and this is statistically the worst league start ever for a Simeone side who currently find themselves in sixth place, nine points of the top of the table.

Watch this space. it’s going to be interesting to see how what happens at the Calderon.