When Carlo Ancelotti brought a record tenth Champions League title to Real Madrid in May 2014, he had spoken incessantly about finding balance for a large part of the season. You can imagine the silver-hair Italian sitting at a table, hunched over a notebook until the early hours of the morning with little more than a reading light for company as he tried to crack the code.
Diego Simeone could do worse than trying to obtain the notes that Ancelotti pored over at the time because he too is faced with a similar predicament.
Atletico huffed and puffed for the first 70 minutes of their opening clash of the new La Liga season on Sunday night with little in the way of reward save for a few close calls. By the time Simeone had unloaded the bench, Alaves’ goalkeeper, defenders and midfield were so compact that their Fernando Pacheco between the posts and midfielder Daniel Torres’ heat-maps might not have looked too dissimilar.
It wasn’t until the 92nd minute that Atletico made the breakthrough when Fernando Torres was pulled down with Kevin Gameiro slotting home the resulting penalty kick. But why did it take so long for the breakthrough to happen?
The home side started with Tiago and Gabi in midfield with both coming off for Nico Gaitan and Fernando Torres in what were progressive and positive changes. Once Atletico did score, however, the space in front of their back four was completely exposed and Manu Garcia popped up with a winner that would have surely been closed down had either other aforementioned midfielders been on the field.
Therein, however, lies the main issue. Why didn’t Simeone have the confidence in his players and his own tactics to start with a more progressive and positive eleven against a newly-promoted side at the Vicente Calderon.
There is no need to take a sledgehammer to a situation that needs a scalpel. Keep Tiago there as your tempo-setter and as a source of protection to stymy any notions an opponent has of attacking you through the middle. Expand Saul’s role as a defensive and attacking threat. Take the chance and expose your excellent back four and goalkeeper a little more because the rewards will be plentiful even if Oblak does not win a Ricardo Zamora award.
Admittedly, Simeone’s task is huge; on any given gameday, he could be forced to sit, much like Alaves, in a low-block against a team that can rip you to shreds like Barcelona before lining out the week after against a side you are expected to beat with plenty of time and goals to spare.
Atletico Madrid are not yet dining at the top table but they have improved on their standing within the league to the point where they must adjust their strategy. They are in limbo; neither desperately hopeless and without a chance of winning La Liga but not yet comfortable enough to set out on the attack on a weekly basis.
Without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Diego Simeone needs to throw some of his infamous caution to the wind or else, much like last year, Atletico will be left empty-handed when the medals are being handed out at season’s end.