The one thing you could always say about Diego Simeone during his spell at Atletico Madrid is that he never got ahead of himself. Partido a partido - game by game. He said it so often that it became a cliche. But it was his guiding philosophy and he lived by it.
It resulted in injuries to key players when his refusal to rotate resulted in fatigue. Diego Costa was rolled out for the final game of the season against Barcelona in 2013-14 and only lasted 16 minutes with a dodgy hamsting. He was given injections of horse placenta to cure the injury and was again sent out in the Champions League final and last just nine. There is reason to believe that Costa would have been fine for the Champions League final had he been rested in the final league game just seven days before.
There was no looking to the future. The future was here and the future was now. Every minute and every game mattered and they played like that. Their intensity was evident, their style carved into their heads and their opponents knew that this would be the case.
In more recent weeks, during Atletico’s abysmal spell, there has been more talk of the future than action on the field and it is leading to Atletico’s worst spell in five years.
"I'll coach Inter one day, it's hardly front page news,” Simeone said recently, seemingly lining up his next job before finishing his present one. This isn’t the Diego Simeone who forced his way to the top of Spanish football, shattering perception that it was simply a two-team league and that there was no way anybody outside of Real Madrid or Barcelona could claim La Liga’s crown.
To find a time when Atletico were outside of the top four this late in the season, you would have to cast your mind back to the 2011-12 season when they managed to finish fifth but also won the Europa League, beating Athletic Club de Bilbao 3-0 in the final.
Make no mistake about it, Atletico Madrid are in a crisis, and just like the intensity and style was evident during the heady days of that title-winning season, their lack of confidence and frustration is evident every time they take the field in recent weeks.
What’s gone wrong?
Change is essential, and change can be good thing. The problem is, Atletico Madrid have been evolving for the sake of evolving for a number of years now and not evolving on their terms with a more longer term vision of who they want to be. Their changes have been caused by factors that include failed signings such as Jackson Martinez, failure to land top targets such as Diego Costa and the need to replace players who have moved onto pastures anew.
The inability to plan for the longer term wasn’t helped when Diego Simeone shortened his contract from 2020 until 2018, in one of the most bizarre moves by a top club in recent memory. This came after two draws at two newly-promoted clubs to start the season.
Atletico Madrid are now amongst Europe’s bigger hitters but there is still a tendency to act like a smaller club. From Griezmann hoping to play for Manchester United one day and Simeone looking towards Inter to their inability to keep the Diego Costa speculation under control. At every turn, there were bids, failed bids, hopes of a return and in the end Atletico were forced to land their second or possible third target in Kevin Gameiro.
What needs to happen
Diego Simeone needs to take control again and remain involved in Atletico’s press briefings while keeping his squad under control. Griezmann needs to be stay away from the microphone or at least take lessons in confidentiality and Atletico need to do their talking on the field.
Simeone said he needed time to think after Atletico’s loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League final. He came back, all guns a blazing, just a few weeks later but there may have been more to his statement than meets the eye. Maybe there were offers from other clubs, and maybe he has failed to convince his current squad that Atletico Madrid is the place he wants to be. More importantly, maybe he has failed to convince himself that this is where he wants to be.
It’s his job to change their mind and if a squad’s attitude is really a mirror of the manager then Simeone has some work to do in turning that uptight, laborious display by Atletico on Monday night into something from 2013 when their energy alone was enough to bowl over anyone that stood in their way.