Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid have never been known for being a soft touch, but they are a team with a squidgy centre right now. They’re not impenetrable, and Saturday’s home defeat to Real Mallorca demonstrated this, with the visitors scoring twice late at the Wanda Metropolitano to snatch all three points.
All teams can suffer a bad day, but those bad days are increasing in number for Atleti. Indeed, the loss to Real Mallorca was their third defeat since the start of November and their third in front of their own fans this season. Furthermore, Atletico Madrid have won just four of the eight home league matches they have played since the summer.
With Atleti already 10 points off the pace being set by Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, this weekend’s Madrid derby presents them with a make-or-break moment in their season. It might still be early in the campaign, but Simeone’s side simply can’t afford to drift any further away from their rivals.
This time last year, Atletico Madrid had dropped points in La Liga just once twice. They entered the first derby of the season on the back of a seven-match winning run. While they lost to Real Madrid, Simeone’s players responded with another winning run of eight matches. By the end of January, Atleti effectively had the Spanish title in-hand.
Now, the ambition might be merely to finish in the top four to keep their place at the Champions League table for next season. Simeone has enough credit in the bank as the greatest manager in Atletico Madrid’s recent history to avoid questions over his future, but the Argentine must quickly come up with answers to some pressing questions.
Many of Atletico Madrid’s problems are down to the poor individual form of many of their players. Jan Oblak, for starters, is currently a shadow of the goalkeeper previously considered to be the best in La Liga, with the Slovenian making a number of blunders this season. Without his physical presence at the back, Atleti instantly become a weaker team.
In defence, Atletico Madrid lack a natural leader. Their options include Felipe, Jose Gimenez, Mario Hermoso and Stefan Savic, but all four have their weaknesses, while almost every centre back at his disposal has suffered injury problems this season.
The midfield is also an issue for Atletico Madrid. Signed as the direct replacement for Thomas Partey, who left the Spanish capital for Arsenal two summers ago, Geoffrey Kondogbia is guilty of slowing Atleti’s possession play with Koke and Rodrigo de Paul struggling to find their place in the system.
Luis Suarez remains one of the most reliable goalscorers in Spain, with seven goals in 15 La Liga appearances (10 of them starts) this season, but the Uruguayan cannot be count on physically to play every minute of every match. Joao Felix and Antoine Griezmann have shown encouraging signs of growth as a front pairing, but neither forward is a natural finisher like Suarez is.
Simeone has attempted to transition Atletico Madrid into a more expansive, modern style of play more than once in recent years, with the Argentine producing mixed results. Last season, Atleti were able to finish top of the pile in La Liga by adapting their trademark ‘Cholismo’ ideology into something more attack-minded. Progress appeared to have been made.
This, however, came after a less successful transition the season before, when Simeone was forced to revert to his default after a series of poor results. He might have no choice but to do this again as Atletico Madrid’s 2021/22 campaign hangs in the balance. To move forward, the capital club might have to go backwards in the meantime.
“Either you get depressed or you rebel,” Simeone replied when asked what needed to change for Atleti to get their season back on track. “I trust this squad and the coaching staff to work hard and redirect to the paths we know well.” The Atletico Madrid manager clearly expects a reaction from his players over the coming weeks.
Victory over Real Madrid on Sunday would put Atleti, who still hold a game in-hand, on the tail of their closest rivals and would go a long way to appeasing those with concerns over the current direction of the club. It’s almost certain that Simeone and his Atletico Madrid team will rise again, but a rethink might be required.