A few months back I wrote an article detailing Luciano Vietto's then-impending appendix operation. Atlético Madrid's Argentine forward had not started the season in a rich vein of form, but he did score the equalizing goal in the season's first Madrid Derby. Many, including me, hoped that would be a turning point in the 21-year-old's season.
It's now March 20, and Vietto has not scored since in La Liga. He hasn't scored at all since December. After not playing in Atlético's penalty shootout win over PSV on Tuesday, Diego Simeone handed Vietto his 11th start of the season for Saturday's game at Sporting Gijón. Simeone, not pleased with the early kickoff time, elected to rotate some. Jesús Gámez and Matías Kranevitter were handed starts while Gabi and Juanfran began on the bench, and after Antoine Griezmann struck a sublime free kick to hand Atleti a 1-0 lead Simeone chose to pull his forwards, park the bus and try to grind out the win. His strategy failed. Sporting scored two late goals and won 2-1.
I've addressed this a bit on Twitter, and this piece isn't about Simeone's tactics, but that bewildering strategic mishap cost Atlético three crucial points against a beatable opponent. Real Madrid will pull to within one point of Atleti with a win over Sevilla tonight. Cholo was pissed at the early kickoff, he had a tired team battling mounting injuries (José Giménez did his hamstring Saturday, which is great news) and the international break was so close he could taste it. But he lost the plot in Gijón, and it's not like Atleti had to travel thousands of kilometers to make the game - Gijón is about an hour's flight from Madrid. Doesn't matter how angry he was at La Liga's schedulers; losing away to a relegation candidate with second place still far from settled is unacceptable.
Anyway, back to Vietto, who has been the poster child for bottling opportunities this season. He is so defeated at this point that he couldn't manage even a single shot over 75 minutes on Saturday. It has become...frightening. I have no other way to describe what has happened to this bright young forward who frequently dazzled at Villarreal last season.
Now, the 22-year-old is one goal in 912 La Liga minutes. One goal despite accruing 1.6 penalty area shots per 90 minutes. He doesn't shoot from outside the box anymore - 1.4 attempts per 90 minutes last season, 0.4 this season. He's caught offside at least once every match and he's knocked off the ball twice as much. His first touch remains heavy as lead, which effectively eliminates his ability to dribble past his marker. Vietto's ambling through a lost season which, truth be told, wasn't unlikely after his early struggles and his operation. But how he's wading through the slime - without a shred of confidence or luck, just one on his shirt - is sad, discouraging and again, frightening.
And it is because of this that I have no idea how to analyze Vietto's path forward. Maybe this is just a blip on the radar; he could return next season fully fit, his spot in the team nailed down and he'll proceed to go gangbusters on La Liga.
Or, this could be the new normal. He struggles again in Simeone's system, his luck doesn't return to 2014 levels and Simeone has to play Borja Bastón, Ángel Correa and another forward Atleti are sure to buy ahead of him, leaving Vietto with no playing time and no way up the pecking order. Perhaps Getafe will get a package at its front door.
(Okay, that's not *entirely* serious. It is funny, though.)
It is the uncertainty of it all, and the nerves intrinsic to that uncertainty, which makes Vietto's situation so uncomfortable. As I wrote in October, the talent is present in spades; if you need a reminder of that, watch his hour-long masterclass against Benfica in December. But what else is there? And when will it reveal itself in an Atlético shirt?
(Statistics culled from WhoScored.)