Back in August, I wrote about a potential solution to Atlético Madrid’s early season problems. You may recall at that point that Atlético had opened the league season with two draws against Alavés and Leganés and had played central midfielders all across the midfield in both games. That solution involved moving Koke to central midfield on a permanent basis and playing actual, real-life wingers like Yannick Carrasco and Nicolas Gaitán.
Now, I like to think Diego Simeone read that post, because the following game at Celta Vigo featured Koke and Gabi in the middle with Carrasco and Saúl Ñíguez on the flanks. Result: a 4-0 win. A 5-0 win over Sporting Gijón in mid-September was driven by a Carrasco-Saúl-Koke-Gaitán midfield. And the 7-1 win vs. Granada in October? The midfield quartet which started that match was Carrasco, Gabi, Koke and Ángel Correa.
Those results and performances feel very old in light of the more recent displays, because, see, ever since Atlético slumped to defeat at Sevilla on Oct. 23, the team’s tactics have become more and more reductive. After that game, the more-open Atleti won a six-goal thriller against Málaga and huffed and puffed to a win vs. Rostov in the Champions League before it dropped a 2-0 decision at Real Sociedad. That was a bad game, sure, but the horrorshow display in the Madrid Derby - against a Real Madrid side that is pretty much champions-elect - signaled to Simeone that the bleeding had to be stopped. And stopped it was: wins over PSV and Osasuna featured Tiago in the XI and Koke on the wing and ended with clean sheets.
Now, I agreed initially with the decision to revert to the Gabi-Tiago double pivot. Atleti were shipping goals at rates not seen since Manzano was manager, and PSV, Osasuna and Guijuelo were not the most difficult opponents on the fixture list. But something funny happened in Saturday’s game vs. Espanyol: Simeone stuck with it.
El Cholo chose the naturally more-defensive Gabi-Tiago pairing and put Koke and Carrasco around them. What ensued was a frustrated, stale performance in which Atleti ran up two-thirds possession but managed one great chance over 90 minutes against a side which had kept four consecutive clean sheets in league play. Simeone did not or would not see that the blood had clotted and it was time to move forward again with the new attacking style, especially against a compact, organized defense set up to stifle los colchoneros - which is exactly what it did.
For Liga Santander purposes, this doesn't matter much - the possibility of winning the league was dashed two weeks ago. And although I wouldn't bet the house on it, the team will probably still pick up the 72-75 points needed to secure a top four place. But for the second year running, Simeone has shown a reluctance to commit to a style which fits several players he has had the club purchase over the past year-plus. Rather, he has had them adapt to the ingrained Cholismo tactics and philosophy; some players, like Gaitán this year and Luciano Vietto last year, simply have not adapted.
Cholismo has worked wonders against the higher-quality opposition in the Champions League. It has made the current team’s players among the continent’s most coveted and made departed players way better (check out how Raúl García is doing at Athletic). But it's not working in La Liga anymore; Espanyol are now among the teams that can attest to that. The more expansive style - which generated those three routs I mentioned earlier - would and does work better against a lot of teams in La Liga. And since the title is out of reach for this season, the rest of the league season needs to be a testing ground for this formation, for Cholo and his players to show that this style can consistently get results and keep Atlético among the elite for years to come.
But the first step is actually acknowledging reality. Unless Simeone and the club admit that LaLiga is gone, Cholismo will continue to be the bread and butter of this Atlético that could be playing a different way. It would not be inconceivable, then, that Cholismo dies with Simeone and a replacement has to pick up the pieces. He's at a crossroads in his managerial career with Atleti and needs to figure out which way he and his players will go.