Players gonna play and haters gonna hate is how Taylor Swift put it. Simeone gonna Simeone and by extension, Atletico gonna Atletico is how I'll put it. Los rojiblancos have returned to their practical and forthright style since a midseason blip and in the process, landed themselves in a Champions League semi-final and within touching distance of second place in LaLiga (they could be just four behind Barcelona if Real Madrid win El Clasico).
For all the suggestions that Atletico always were and always will be a defensive and awful team to play against under Simeone, there was a time when conceding three was an almost weekly occurrence for them. There was one point in the season when they were mired by a crisis of identity that threatened their season domestically and in Europe. Not only were they conceding goals and losing games. They were losing confidence, and face. They were also losing time with and the trust of their best players. Griezmann never publicly expressed an interest in leaving (in as many words) but his form dipped to critical levels and the word exodus and Atletico were being used in the same sentence all too often on the streets of Madrid. There was a real sense that we were watching Diego Simeone’s era at the club end with little more than a whimper.
Simeone felt he had brought the team as far as he could as that stubborn, impermeable nut that could not be cracked. He felt as though he had ambitious enough players that he had to adapt and he felt that two failures in two Champions League finals signalled the end of the road for that iteration of Atletico. That was confirmed when both Alavés and Leganés won points off Atletico in the opening two games of the season in two stalemates. Atletico had gone blunt up front and their was a decision made to change how they played.
The sequel to the first version of Atleti, however, did not live up to expectation. It was some time around the end of November and the start of December when three losses in four games with eight goals conceded caused Simeone and his crew to take a long hard look at themselves, rerun a few tapes of how they used to be and come to the realisation that this Atletico, their Atletico, were better with their backs to the wall. Playing any other way was disingenuous.
During that stretch, they were beaten by Sevilla 1-0, Real Sociedad 2-0 and Real Madrid 3-0. After a brief but unconvincing steadying of the ship, they were beaten 3-0 by Villarreal when the crises started to really cause concern. What’s worse was Villarreal had been compared to the earlier versions of Atletico and Simeone had been beaten by a team in his image. Everyone, from the crowd at the Calderon to the coaching staff in the dugout longed for a return to the old ways.
In that Real Madrid loss, Koke was played in the centre and the game passed him by. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick but it was Isco who dwarfed Koke and dominated the game. Atletico had gone through a period of adversity and appeared on the other side. It was time for them to reveal themselves as to who they really were. Simeone was dressing the team up as a flash, attacking side but it never fit.
Since that game, Atletico have conceded 10 goals in 18 games including ten clean sheets with just one loss against Barcelona and four draws as they overtook Sevilla for ownership of third place in LaLiga and with that, hope has returned.
Koke plays in his wide role, sacrificing himself for the team. Gabi and Saul take care of the centre and Yannick Carrasco drops to the other wing, working tirelessly to ensure Atletico are never breached on his watch. That familiar looking 4-4-2 has returned.
You can use all the pejorative adjectives you want to describe them again; boring, abrasive and attritional. Atletico fans have heard them all before but the one thing you can not accuse Atletico Madrid of is being insincere as to who they really are.