We all have our guilty pleasures. Some like to take a peek at Facebook while at work. Some like to eat Nutella out the jar. Some like to watch terrible reality TV. I like to eat cereal for dinner.
But for Diego Simeone, his guilty pleasure is to play with four central midfielders.
That’s what he did on Saturday for the 1-1 draw against Villarreal, starting — from right to left — Saúl Ñíguez, Thomas Partey, Rodri and Koke, even after a summer in which Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins were added to a squad that already had Vitolo and Ángel Correa. While it was the first time this season he’d done this, it certainly isn’t a novelty.
Last season, it happened five times in the league, with los colchoneros’ record with the cuatropivote being three victories (1-0 against Alavés, 5-2 against Sevilla and 1-0 against Getafe) and two losses (1-0 against Espanyol and 1-0 to Barcelona). There were also two instances of central midfielder-itis in the Champions League — the 0-0 draw at Roma and the elimination-sealing 1-1 draw at Chelsea.
Substitute Gabi for Rodri and the narrow midfield four that started each of these matches was the same as the one which took to the field at Villarreal. Another common factor is the location of the games, with just one of the eight at home. Clearly, this is a cautionary tactic used against threatening teams at tough-to-visit grounds, but the fact that this caution hasn’t always worked — the return is just three wins from eight, after all — should be an eye-opener.
Spooling even further back, perhaps the most high-profile example of Atlético’s central midfield quartet starting from the off was the 2016 Champions League final, when we saw Saúl, Augusto Fernández, Gabi and Koke start. The half-time introduction of Yannick Carrasco for Augusto — when Atleti were behind 1-0 — changed the game, and one can only wonder what would have happened had the Belgian played all 120 minutes.
Of course, Simeone knows what he’s doing much more than a guy who eats cereal for dinner, but is so much caution really the best option to start these difficult fixtures? Against Villarreal, a club in crisis, the deployment of one of Correa, Lemar or Martins would surely have sparked panic in the Yellow Submarine’s back line — which was without defensive leader Víctor Ruiz.
Instead, Villarreal were presented with a flat midfield four that left Nikola Kalinić isolated and forced Antoine Griezmann to drop deeper and deeper. With two 33-year-old full-backs starting too, there was almost no penetration on the wings.
The tactics of it all can be pored over again and again, but the numbers do appear to speak for themselves. To have just three wins from eight matches with four central midfielders is a concern. It’s more guilty than it is pleasure.