Atlético Madrid’s start to this Liga Santander season drew optimism from even hardened colchoneros and raised a few eyebrows elsewhere in Spain. Here were Atlético, unable to inject new blood into a squad that desperately needed it and already out of the Champions League, sitting above übermenschen Real Madrid and sexy Valencia in mid-December (and already having played both). Yes, there were too many draws, but the 10-6-0 start placed Atleti within shouting distance of leaders Barcelona — who while dominant at times this season have exuded a certain vulnerability, a certain lack of control that is so unlike them.
Yet Atlético looked fragile most weeks, dropping key points at home and escaping with narrow victories away. For example, Atleti threw away late one-goal leads against Barça and Villarreal in October before somehow winning 1-0 at Celta Vigo (where they were dominated) and 1-0 Deportivo La Coruña (where the teams were equally bad). The most extreme cases came this month, where los rojiblancos won 1-0 at Betis with 26 percent possession and 1-0 versus Alavés despite creating four chances with 65 percent possession.
But on Friday night at RCDE Stadium, the luck dragons stayed chained underground. There would be no unocerismo pixie dust against Espanyol, who limited Atlético to ONE shot on target the entire game and got an 88th minute winner from Sergio García. As if we needed more proof that Atleti need fixing, Friday night’s game provided it.
But the fix isn’t as simple as registering Diego Costa, which the club will be free to do after next week. Despite the narrative that has surrounded this team and its paltry 25 goals from 17 games, Costa is not the elixir, the antidote to what ails Atlético’s attack. (I talked about this a little back in September.)
Atlético’s deep, industrious central midfield can be an asset, but most other times it is a sizable liability. Atleti have problems scoring goals, that’s true. However, the failure to create chances consistently (as opposed to finishing chances consistently) in a rigid, predictable setup has hampered this team and will continue to hamper this team.
Here are Atleti’s shots-on-target totals from the past six league games (with expected goals from Understat): 1 (0.75), 11 (2.88), 10 (3.06), 2 (0.79), 4 (1.01), 1 (0.77). The results were as follows: 0-0, 5-0, 2-1, 1-0, 1-0 and 0-1. Despite scoring only four goals against teams not named Levante since the last international break, it may surprise you to learn that only Valencia, Barcelona and Real Betis have converted shots into goals at a higher rate than Atleti’s 15.7 percent. So that’s not so much the issue.
Here is the issue: not counting Friday night, Atlético have created 153 chances this season, smack dab in the middle of LaLiga. Some perspective on how disappointing that number is: bottom side Málaga have created the same number of chances through 17 weeks. In fact, four of LaLiga’s bottom six — Deportivo (173), Celta (171), Las Palmas (158) too — have strung together more chances than Atlético this season.
(A big thank you to Ravi Mistry and his incomparable dashboard maps.)
It’s not that a world-class forward like Costa can’t solve Atlético’s chance creation conundrum. There’s just simply no way he can unless his coach finally and meaningfully pivots away from his safe, familiar 4-4-2. (And not a Ross Geller pivot, either). Diego Simeone’s quadruple pivot harms Atlético’s buildup and inhibits the abilities of his best players. In this system, 32-year-old left back Filipe Luís is usually the team’s top playmaker; Koke is too often a spectator playing out of position and Antoine Griezmann’s form has been volatile, while Ángel Correa and Yannick Carrasco have seen their playing time cut (in the latter’s case, he didn’t even see the pitch at Espanyol).
Costa’s return certainly will offer a boost and will bring goals with it — if for no other reason than because the striker is brilliant (and also crazy and hungry). But he alone is not the answer to the “why can’t Atlético score goals?” question. Costa is only going to finish as many chances as his teammates will supply — and based on the first four months of this season, he’s going to need to make every chance count.