Following the shocking 1-1 draw against newly-promoted Alaves last week at the Vicente Calderon, there was much doubt regarding Atletico’s ability to sustain a title challenge over 38 weeks if they struggled to pick up a win at home against inferior opposition. The claims were fair and with good reason. It’s unlikely that Real Madrid or the defending champions, Barcelona, will drop points at home to a team that was heavily favoured for relegation at the start of the campaign. Heading into last Saturday’s match-up with another promoted team, Atletico were under a ton of pressure to ensure the mini-panic that ensued as a result of last week’s result didn’t turn into a full-blown crisis.
It was a drab match, with Atleti putting in a worse performance than the week before, which provides all the information needed on how terrible they looked at times. Saul, whom many expected to have a breakout season, has struggled to take settle into games and his moments of magic are yet to appear. New signing Kevin Gameiro, brought in to help ease the goal scoring burden on Antoine Griezmann, is still attempting to fit in though there was a flash of brilliance when he skipped past his marker before forcing a good save from Serantes in the Leganes goal. Koke, the jack of all trades when it comes to midfield qualities, has failed to control both games, with Atleti desperately missing the creative spark he provides. When your best players aren’t performing to the standard they’ve created for themselves, it’s always going to be a battle to pull out victories.
It’s almost a mystery as to how Atletico find themselves in the position they do. Teams like Alavas and Leganes always have a chance of causing an upset, but in the past when Atleti struggled to break teams down, they usually managed to find a goal from somewhere and end up with a typical 1-0 victory. We may only be two weeks into the new season, but the blueprint of a Diego Simeone team seems to have been erased from the players’ minds. The majority of the squad have never been a part of a team that is expected, instead of hoping, to compete for the league title. Heading into this new campaign, for the first time in the era of Simeone, anything bar a legitimate title challenge will be viewed as a failure. It seems that Atleti have become a victim of their own overachievements.
Even after the title winning season of 2014, a summer of departures, which included Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois and Filipe Luis, led to Atleti once again being overlooked when predictions were made as to who would take home the title the following year. Real and Barca were everyone’s favourites with Atletico, despite being the defending champions, more or less finding themselves as an afterthought. It was a similar story last year, but after reaching a second Champions League final in three years, expectations have increased to a level that those associated with the club will not have been used to. Fans demand success this year, a clear sign of how spoilt they have been since the turn of the decade. Achieving countless, and almost annual, success will have that effect on supporters.
The failure to deal with the pressure they now face has cost them four valuable points already. Atleti aren’t like their title rivals. A bad result in the past would almost have gone unnoticed by the national media as they focused on the happenings at Real and Barcelona. However, Simeone finds his team in the headlines after another subpar performance and inexcusable result. Up until this point, the players rarely had their character questioned. If anything, it was praised and looked upon as a key reason as to why the team continuously performed above expectations. Now, it looks as if the mental shift from being underdogs to genuine title favourites has taken the team longer than anticipated to come to terms with.
Heading into an international break on the back of such a flat and uninspiring start isn’t how Atleti would have hoped to kick start their season. The two- week rest could be a blessing in disguise if Simeone is able to correctly assess the physical and mental problems that have plague the team in the first two games. Cholo himself has had to adapt to the new Atletico. It’s always been his style to build his teams with a strong defensive mind set while settling happily for a 1-0 victory which usually came from either a Koke assist or Griezmann finish. The recent signings of Nico Gaitan and Gameiro, along with a shift in expectations, has led to calls for a more attacking Atletico. This has been the opposite to what fans will have witnessed these past two weeks, and unless Simeone, along with his players, become accustomed to the new targets they have been set, it won’t be long until the title is out of reach for another year.