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Diego Simeone shows willingness to change with new formation

The Argentine — not known for his tinkering — rolled out a 3-4-3 against Girona in another attempt to get his Atleti side to turn over a new leaf.

Club Atletico de Madrid v SSC Napoli - Audi Cup 2017 Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images for Audi

(Warning : “Game of Thrones” spoilers ahead. If you’re not caught up on Season 7...¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

This “Game of Thrones” season has seen the show depart from the deliberate table-setting of years past in favor of a more frenetic, accelerated timeline as the series hurtles toward its conclusion. In this season’s fourth episode, “The Spoils of War,” we finally saw Daenerys Targaryen unleash one of her dragons on unsuspecting Lannister forces — with disastrous results for them. However, during this battle, the Lannister-allied mercenary Bronn unveiled a weapon designed to take down one of those flying, fire-breathing beasts: a “Scorpion,” a projectile conceived by Qyburn, Hand of the Queen to Cersei Lannister.

The idea behind the Scorpion is simple. It is intended to be manned by a small team that will load a human-sized spear into its chamber and launch it, with the goal being to hit a humongous dragon in just the right place to pierce its hardy exterior and bring it down. Now, the Scorpion was not quite ready to inflict lethal damage, but prospective dragon-slayers were on the right track — as we saw on last week’s episode, “Beyond the Wall.”

So, you may wonder how this relates to Atlético Madrid’s troubling 2-2 draw at Girona last weekend. We have debated exactly how troubling that result was, but shared spoils at a newly promoted side to begin a season in which a top-three rival appears severely weakened is less-than-optimal. While Diego Simeone was without his two best defenders and an increasingly important midfield piece in Thomas Partey, his side really should not have had many problems brushing aside the Catalan minnows.

It is true that Atlético began the game too negatively. Simeone’s men didn’t press and seemed content to allow Girona opportunities to ping the ball around and create chances — which they did during a dominant first half display. But early in the second half, Cholo threw caution to the wind and made a bold decision that eventually secured a point: he went with a 3-4-3 (later 3-4-2 after Antoine Griezmann decided to call the referee a coward).

The formation shift caught Girona completely off guard, and Atlético found it easier to shift attack points and exploit space in Pablo Machín’s five-man back line. Combined with a more fervent counterpress, Atlético played long balls more effectively and shaky passing defenders — looking at you, Stefan Savić — were more comfortable on the ball. Girona also began to tire after an hour, which allowed the substitutes (namely Ángel Correa) to go right at them and offer more danger than some of the starters.

But lest we forget, this is hardly the first time in recent memory that Simeone has tried to reboot Atlético’s signature playing style. On the contrary, before Saturday there were three distinct occasions in the past two seasons alone in which the boss has attempted significant stylistic changes.

Early in the 2015/16 season, Simeone began to toy with a 4-3-3. His first attempt at this came in a Champions League group stage match away at Galatasaray, when Jackson Martínez played as the #9 while flanked by Griezmann and Luciano Vietto. Atlético won the game 2-0 thanks to a Griezmann brace, but the other two forwards were an awkward fit — Jackson was too slow, Vietto was too sloppy — and the Argentine eventually abandoned the formation.

During his side’s Champions League final run that season, Cholo turned to a 4-1-4-1 with Griezmann on a wing, Saúl Ñíguez essentially at center back and Fernando Torres as the lone striker. With Yannick Carrasco available as a substitute, this formation allowed Atlético to stifle Bayern Munich and produce threatening counter attacks. This setup saw Atleti through to the final courtesy of an away goal scored on one of those counterattacks.

In 2016/17, Simeone tried to move Koke into a more-or-less permanent central midfield role. It didn’t work, as Atlético lost solidity in his preferred 4-4-2. Later in the season, he returned Koke to the wing, but the Spain international would drift inward and Yannick Carrasco would push up the pitch to form a 4-3-3 when Atleti went on the counterattack. This subtler tweak led to more consistent domestic results, but Atleti didn’t always look convincing enough to blow off a team’s doors or end the Champions League hoodoo.

More versatility was needed. And last Saturday, we saw promising movement on that front.

So you see, Simeone unveiling the 3-4-3 this past weekend was like Bronn unveiling Qyburn’s dragon-hunting Scorpion. As the Simeone Era enters — let’s face it — its final seasons, the boss has had to find ways to re-energize and rejuvenate his team to face competition that is now very aware of Cholismo. It is the latest example of Cholo’s willingness to experiment and diversify Atlético’s style. It’s not yet perfect, and with Filipe Luís and Šime Vrsaljko returning to full fitness, we shouldn’t see it too often. But this tactical versatility is the line to follow, and with polish — perhaps starting Saturday against Las Palmas — it could become a prized weapon in Atleti’s quest to slay Barcelona- and Real Madrid-sized dragons at home and abroad.