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Atlético stay in title hunt despite shaky performances

Atlético find themselves unbeaten and just six points off the top as winter break approaches, but the results haven’t always matched the play.

Real Betis v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

The goal for the first half of Atlético Madrid’s season was simple: stay in the title hunt until January when the squad can be reinforced with Diego Costa and Vitolo, and have a real go at winning LaLiga for the first time since 2014. Obviously, Atlético would have much preferred to still be in the Champions League, but their league position is and point haul compared to last season is nothing to be sneeze at. With the joint-best defensive record in the league and an unblemished loss column through 15 matches, there is potential for a title challenge if they stay the course.

But many times this season, we’ve seen an unsure, wobbly Atlético attack that definitely needs a reset. Not including Sunday’s Real Betis match, Atleti have created 140 shooting opportunities this season, and they have scored on 15.7 percent of these chances (credit to Ravi Mistry for his excellent work). Barcelona have converted 17.6 percent, and Real Madrid 9.9 percent. There’s quite a discrepancy there, as well as the fact that Barcelona have created 188 shooting chances, while Madrid have crafted a whopping 232.

(This tells us something that also passes the eye test: los blancos have been unlucky and will likely recover — that process probably began against Sevilla on Saturday.)

Second-place Valencia, though, sit at the other end of the spectrum. Marcelino’s surprise side has created a similar number of chances (147), but they have converted a massive 22.4 percent. That would indicate they’re running a little bit hot, and that number might come down as the season moves along.

Diego Simeone’s style of play often relies on forward players converting from the relatively few chances created per match, and then holding on to the lead through a stout defense. As we know, Atlético’s strikers have not performed as hoped so far this year, even as Antoine Griezmann has started to heat up some.

So how do Atleti convert more of their chances? Simple: Diego Costa.

It’s arbitrary to expect Costa to carry the whole team from January, but he is one of Europe’s finest finishers. In his two Premier League-winning seasons at Chelsea, his xG numbers were just over 15, but he scored 20-plus goals both times, almost solely from inside the box. This is the Costa that Simeone needs come January, and hopefully he is the player Profe Ortega will deliver.

Right now, it looks as if Barcelona will win the title — they haven’t really been lucky or unlucky in chance conversion, and when the going gets tough, they certainly have the players to pull the rabbit out of the hat. What Atlético need to overtake Barça is a big dip in form, perhaps caused by Champions League distraction or injuries to key players (like Samuel Umtiti). Real Madrid will always be a threat, especially given their slow start to the season. Where Atleti have an advantage is that they can push on for LaLiga without worrying about that pesky Champions League; Europa League would be far less of a priority than another league crown.

Collectively, los colchoneros have been fortunate at times according to chance numbers and expected goals, but Simeone’s strategy inherently confuses such calculations. If Costa arrives with the expected impact and players like Yannick Carrasco hit their stride, Atleti can become a legitimately dangerous challenger. And defensively, Atleti convinced more than they have all season against Betis (which seems strange to say given they had under 30% possession), as they restricted a ball-dominant side to speculative long-range efforts.

If the defense can remain a compact unit and a new attack’s quality shines through, a very interesting second half of the season awaits for the red-and-whites.