This season might be Atlético Madrid’s best chance to win LaLiga since 2014. The mattress makers sit just three points off first place with 16 fixtures down in what is on track to be around an 80-point league.
Atlético have dropped points in half their games however, with seven draws and one loss against teams from all parts of the table. Atleti have scored wins over Real Betis (5th), Deportivo Alavés (6th) and Getafe (7th). However, they have drawn away to 17th place Villarreal, 16th place Leganés and 14th place Valencia. Los rojiblancos are on pace for just 74 points, a total that would place them fourth in last year’s league.
Atlético have looked their best this season when they have something going forward, a counterattacking bite. Whether it was the spirited comeback win over Real Madrid in the Super Cup or the 2-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, Atlético have relied on their attack in their most convincing performances this season.
However, recent matches against Barcelona and Girona yielded an all-too-familiar story. Atlético were steadfast in defense and oversaw tight, conservative games from beginning to end. The result? Two draws.
The key difference in the attacking, fluid Atleti that defeated Dortmund and Alavés (to give another example) is in the midfield.
However, Simeone continues to start conservative lineups in big games. In ten league matches against Barcelona and Real Madrid over the last three seasons, his side is a woeful 0-6-4 and have managed no more than one goal in each match.
Simeone’s selection of Thomas Lemar over Thomas Partey in the match against Barcelona made him look adventurous and attacking-minded, but a better option was left on the bench. The Argentine could have gone for the throat of a suspect Barcelona defense if he had started Ángel Correa on the wing and left one of Koke or Rodri on the bench.
Correa has played in all 16 league matches this season, but seven of those appearances came as a substitute. In the last seven games in which Correa has played 60 or more minutes, Atlético have totaled six wins and one draw.
Simeone, however, only seems to go to lineups with Correa as a second option. His back has to be against the wall it seems, just as it was down 2-1 in the Super Cup. It feels as if his hand has to be forced by an injury — or after suffering a 4-0 loss in the Champions League.
While Koke is a stalwart player, he is not a true winger and does not add the same dimension to the team that Correa and even Vitolo do. In a season in which Barcelona have allowed seven more goals but scored 18 more, Atlético must push forward in order to match the blaugrana’s record.
Last month, when Koke’s lingering injury forced Correa into the lineup against Athletic Club de Bilbao, Atlético showed off another resilient attacking display and scored three goals in regulation for just the second time this season. They put up three once more on Saturday, in a thrilling 3-2 win over Real Valladolid. Correa played 74 minutes in that win.
But after the Athletic win, Simeone reverted to old ways and chose Koke for the team against Barcelona. Atlético may have scored, but they missed a golden opportunity to break down a porous Barça defense. Another Correa-less starting lineup also played to a draw at Club Brugge — a result which cost Atleti top spot in their Champions League group.
Simeone’s Atlético are known for their defense, but their reliance on that part of the team is stifling the offensive development of a terrific young player. A midfield of Correa, Saúl, Rodrigo and Thomases Lemar or Partey would open up the pitch and help the goals fly in.