On Saturday afternoon, as part of a triple-header that would see all three presumed title challengers play in Madrid on the same day, Atlético Madrid stuttered against Leganés with some uncharacteristically sloppy defending and an 82nd minute equalizer. They stole a draw from the jaws of victory.
After the game, Saúl Ñíguez said “we lacked ambition” but Lucas Hernández was closer to the head of the nail when he said “we conceded a set-piece that we shouldn’t have.” To butcher a phrase, “winning LaLiga is like driving at night — you can only see as far as the headlights but you can make it the whole way there like this.”
Diego Simeone’s style draws criticisms as it does commendations, but his overall strategy to be consistent on a weekly basis is best suited to winning LaLiga. It’s why his greatest triumph came in LaLiga with Atlético in 2013/14, and it’s why they have consistently peered over Real Madrid and Barcelona’s shoulder while clubs like Sevilla and Valencia have threatened to keep pace but fallen off when push came to shove.
It’s not ambitiously innovative, but with 114 points to play for in a league campaign, making fewer mistakes than your opponents is the easiest and most logical approach to winning a tough league like this one. It’s a struggle to switch mindsets for Champions League and that has proven to be the case for Simeone recently — but that’s another issue.
Winning leagues is the hardest thing to do. To achieve it, you need to be consistently boring. Cholo Simeone is not so much a risk-taker as a risk-mitigator.
It’s part of the reason why Zinedine Zidane left Real Madrid. It’s a large part of the reason why Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal collapsed year after year in the Premier League. Ambition doesn’t win league titles. Stability and regularity does, and in a LaLiga campaign where only Barcelona have shown their credentials and quickly hid them again, Atlético are well-placed for a run at silverware.
There is a parity in LaLiga creeping in. Gone are the days when the two historic giants were accumulating 100 points apiece and were barely troubled from one weekend to the next. And even back then, in the heady days of Pep versus José, it was closer to the norm than what we see now — or at least closer to what is expected.
Atlético missed Koke at the weekend, and despite the doubts about his influence it’s only really evident when he doesn’t play. As far as priorities go, with Diego Godín and Diego Costa out as well, I’m sure being open and expansive was the last thing on Cholo’s mind heading to Butarque on Saturday afternoon.
Barcelona, the title favourites for now, were very, very lucky against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday night and aside from the two late goals they looked like a team of misfits (remember, too, that they lost to Leganés at Butarque). They look tired and confused, each player scanning the pitch and waiting for someone to do something to inspire them to victory as the clock ticked down. They might continue to get lucky, or not, but the important thing is that Atlético are right behind them if they do falter.
This is part of a wider point that Simeone often makes when he says that Atlético are always fighting for third place (although he hasn’t said it this year). It takes a freak year, several strokes of luck and a mostly injury-free campaign for Atlético to compete for 38 games.
Simeone said “we need everybody” after the Leganés draw, and this game and these weeks and months before the winter break (with another international break to come) should be used to get everyone up to speed, get injured players back and assimilate the new players.
Games like the one at Butarque are testing grounds. Gelson Martins is more involved now and Thomas Lemar was included again too with one eye on the Champions League tie against Borussia Dortmund. After a World Cup year when other teams are struggling to get back into the swing of things and Atlético bring their new, unusually dynamic players like the two aforementioned, things are fine.
Stefan Savić said last weekend “the best style is to win” — which has a further implication. Winning is all that matters even at the expanse of aesthetics. Atlético were 1-0 up and an error at the back cost them three points. Saúl and angry fans need to point their ire at these issues before issuing statements about something Diego Simeone never claimed to be as a manager.