This wasn’t the start we had in mind. It may only be August 30 but it’s hard to ignore that all is not at right at the Vicente Calderon. Atletico Madrid have started the Liga Santander season with two draws against newly-promoted sides and have not yet scored in open play. Reactions to the 1-1 draw vs. Deportivo Alavés and the stalemate at Leganes have ranged from calm to panicked, as what was anticipated to be perhaps the best Atletico team ever assembled has looked quite ordinary. And with Barcelona and Real Madrid running up 100 per cent records to this point, time may be running out on Atleti’s chances of a title challenge - as shocking as that sounds. It is extremely difficult to compete with those two clubs for 38 weeks - which makes the 2013-14 league title Diego Simeone’s greatest achievement at this club, bar none - and failing to pick up points at any stage can be very costly.
However, it’s not even September yet and a fully-oiled Atletico machine is capable of going on a long winning run. In order for that to happen, though, Simeone needs to make changes before his troops do battle at Celta Vigo in a little less than two weeks. Well, actually, just one big yet uncomplicated change:
Quit playing four central midfielders.
The one tweak that turned 2015-16 Atleti from a pretty good, young side to a juggernaut that nearly ripped off a double was a simple one: Koke moved into central midfield after playing the better part of two years on the left wing. That unlocked the rojiblanco attack and gave Simeone the flexibility to move between 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 over the final months. Koke as a psuedo-10 in a 4-4-2 and as a more defensive-minded CM in the 4-1-4-1 got Atleti back on track after some poor results in the league and the Champions League - many of which included a failure to score goals.
(See the goalless draws at home to Sevilla and Villarreal and the 0-0 away in Eindhoven. Brutal games to watch.)
But Koke is back on the left wing to start 2016-17 as Simeone elected to pair Gabi with Tiago/Augusto in the middle of the park against two teams that have kept entire cities behind the ball in an attempt to secure a draw. Unsurprisingly, Atletico are again struggling to score despite a bevy of shot attempts as its attack moves at a snail’s pace. The team’s two best options at CM - Koke and Saul Niguez - are on the wings, where they are much less influential in driving the attack. It’s only when Yannick Carrasco and Nicolas Gaitan - proper wide men - are shuffled on that the attack starts to look dangerous (unlucky, but more dangerous). By then, however, it’s too late. Specifically, Gaitan was inserted with less than 10 minutes to go at Leganes. Not good.
Look, Cholismo and the loss of defensive solidity are concepts that do not mesh. But this glut in midfield slows down everything about Atletico’s offense. At the very least Koke needs to play in the center and Saul should partner him, which means Gaitan shifts to left wing and either Carrasco or Gabi (Carrasco) plays on the right. Simeone likes to have a destroyer on the pitch at almost all times, which means Gabi and/or Augusto will still see plenty of burn (Augusto played very well against Leganes, as we’ve come to expect from the Argentine).
Now, in this setup, Filipe and Juanfran may need to work a little harder in defense and commit fewer resources to attacking. But the entire point of acquiring Carrasco in 2015 and then Gaitan in May was to reshape Atletico’s attack from the bruising, grinding approach of the UEL and league winners to a faster, more technical and “prettier” possession style that kept a lethal counterattacking element. Shifting pieces around the chess board like Simeone has done thus far condemns the colchoneros to a particular kind of attacking - and teams have found it less and less difficult to defend.
With several complicated league games on the horizon - at Vigo, at Barcelona, at Mestalla, as well as a return engagement in the Netherlands and another battle royale with Bayern Munich - it is imperative that the players continue their work and Simeone figures out this crowded midfield before things start to snowball. The right players need to be in control in the center of the park and the right personalities need to be out wide; otherwise, the start nobody saw coming may become the season nobody saw coming.