Two Saturdays ago, Atlético Madrid arrived at Balaídos to battle a rejuvenated Celta Vigo team. Los colchoneros were all smiles at training during the week and touched down in Galicia filled with confidence — even though they had barely survived the previous week’s encounter with newly-promoted Rayo Vallecano.
The first half moved slowly — Atlético’s physicality and Filipe Luís-driven attack kept Celta’s tinier but more technical players off the ball and shielded their Uruguayan tandem in central defense. It was goalless at half time of a movie we’ve seen before, where Atleti bored the opposition and viewers alike before finding space to take high-quality chances.
But Maxi Gómez flipped that script 44 seconds after the restart when he pounced on Filipe’s mishandled back pass and fired Celta into the lead. The hosts had breached Diego Simeone’s defense — which had looked weak in preseason and during the thrilling Super Cup win over Real Madrid — and would do it again about five minutes later when Iago Aspas scored a header.
Atlético were never the same after that opening goal and put forth a lifeless second half display. The mishandled pass and slip by one of Simeone’s most prominent lieutenants sapped Atleti’s vitality — and even though it’s early September, it’s not captain Diego Godín’s first backbreaking error this season.
Less than two weeks earlier, Atlético faced Valencia on a warm night at Mestalla. It was about as difficult a season opener as there is in Spain — particularly after the intense Madrid Derby which took place five days prior and nearly 2,300 miles away. So it was understandable that Atleti tapered off in the second half and settled for a 1-1 draw. What wasn’t so understandable was the Valencia equalizer, scored by rising Spain star Rodrigo Moreno.
Godín, drawn into a matchup with Rodrigo, tried to head away the Daniel Wass ball that was coming his way. Sure, it was a clever move by Rodrigo to chest down, and the excellent finish left Jan Oblak no chance. But a defender as experienced and instinctual as Godín needed to do better in that situation — and it was Oblak who made the draw hold up with two big saves at the end.
The German author Hermann Hesse once wrote: “I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way, we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.” The bad fortune (read: two critical errors) Godín has experienced early this season can easily be turned around — such is the veteran’s reputation, his track record as a sterling center back.
But what if it’s not? What if it represents an end’s beginning? What will it mean when Godín comes face-to-face with football mortality?
There are early warning signs that that may happen at some point this season — a process that could be expedited by the player’s expiring contract and the fact that there too exists value in the form of two capable, younger replacements waiting in the wings.
So far, some of the numbers aren’t pretty.
Godín — who has played every minute between the Super Cup and LaLiga — has averaged a paltry 1.3 clearances per 90 minutes. He’s fouled at a higher rate than ever (1.7 fouls per 90). And Godín — a positionally-sound defender with great intelligence and feel despite his lack of foot speed — has attempted more tackles (3.3) than ever before as he’s struggled to reach an understanding with even-slower partner Stefan Savić.
Other statistics are in line with what we’ve come to expect from the 32-year-old, though. Godín has continued to win aerial duels at an excellent rate (three per 90 minutes) and his interceptions — arguably the best barometer for how he’s doing — check in at a solid 2.3 per 90.
That said, the uncharacteristic mistakes against Valencia and Celta have contributed not insignificantly to Atlético’s slow start to the season, a season which many observers — including yours truly — saw as one that could end with Atleti winning the league. Simeone’s men are already five points off the pace set by Madrid and Barcelona and they cannot afford to lose any more ground when Eibar visit Saturday.
As such, Cholo should drop his captain and allow him to refocus before Atlético fly to Monaco to begin the Champions League group stage next week. José Giménez and Lucas Hernández remains the mattress makers’ defensive pairing of the future, and there’s no excuse not to roll them out with confidence against Eibar and other sides (more on that later).
The disappointing start is not down solely to Godín’s failings, of course — Atleti have half a dozen players on the shelf with injury, and several others still searching for form after the World Cup took up their summers. Godín, to be fair, was busier than most everyone save his French teammates.
As Uruguay’s captain, el faraón marshaled a transitioning side into the World Cup quarterfinals with a string of dominant performances — all against the backdrop of a tournament in which disciplined defensive play did not come easily for many nations (see the record own goal total).
Godín led all qualified defenders (those with more than four appearances) in interceptions per 90 minutes at the World Cup with 2.6 over that span, and he just missed the top 10 in clearances per 90 at 4.4. He committed just five fouls over 450 minutes and made over five clearances on three occasions. The case was made once more for him as the world’s best defender.
When asking “why has Godín’s start to the club season been so poor?” it is important to note that the dude’s barely had a day off. That’s an easy way to explain away his form. Less than six weeks separated Uruguay’s 2-0 loss to France and the UEFA Super Cup in Tallinn. Teammate Giménez played just 80 minutes across Atlético’s first four fixtures, while Godín played the maximum 390.
But rest or no rest, credit or no credit, Atleti already find themselves in a delicate position even with the season barely underway. Godín can’t be afforded weeks to work out the kinks — not with Giménez and Lucas pulling up in a Hummer outside his figurative door, “Te Boté” roaring from the vehicle’s sound system.
El Mundo’s Iñako Díaz-Guerra, while acknowledging Godín’s legendary status in the capital, believes that duo should take over in central defense for the time being.
Mi opinión: la pareja de centrales titular tendría que ser ya Lucas-Giménez. Porque, sí, Godín es una leyenda, pero ahora mismo no es de los dos mejores centrales de la plantilla y los galones no evitan goles.— Iñako Díaz-Guerra (@InakoDiazGuerra) September 1, 2018
“The starting center backs should now be Lucas-Giménez. Because, yes, Godín is a legend, but right now he’s not one of the two best center backs in the squad and [his status, essentially] does not prevent goals.”
Starting Giménez and Lucas — both recipients of new, long-term contracts this summer — would solve a couple problems for Simeone, at least short-term. Disgruntled-but-still-super-good Filipe Luís would get the playing time he wants at left back, and Godín — the team’s oldest central defender — can take more time to rediscover his best form.
After all, perhaps Atlético feel it’s vintage form and then some that Godín needs to recover in order to receive his own new contract. His horror start to the season — just after he’s taken the captain’s band — probably won’t give the club any incentive to act faster in renewing a contract that expires in June 2019.
Granted, Atlético’s wage bill is one of LaLiga’s highest — something that tends to happen when you pay Antoine Griezmann €23 million per year — but it is more than a little curious that Godín’s contract has not been formally reassessed and renewed. Reportedly, there was friction over the summer between the club and agent Diego Heredia over said contract — Atleti wanted to continue the club policy of signing over-30 players to rolling one-year deals, while Heredia requested a firmer three-year commitment. Disagreements aside, no renewal has been finalized to this point and it doesn’t seem close, even after Godín rejected Juventus and Manchester United in the summer window’s dying days when both sides wanted to pay his scandalous €20 million release clause.
It is somewhat incomprehensible that Atlético would allow their captain to even negotiate with other clubs in January, let alone walk for free next summer. Because at day’s end, Godín still has more to give Atleti. Put aside his early-season form and remember his heroic first-leg performance against Arsenal in the Europa League semifinals, think about his World Cup. He may not be 2015/16-level anymore, but he remains a top-drawer defender by most measures and will retain that status at least through next summer’s Copa América.
However, players do not get younger — they get older. Godín, his legendary status virtually secured as a big-game performer who lives and dies by the crest, showed signs of aging early last season before he turned it around and delivered when it mattered for club and country. Maybe the international break is all he needs, and I will have written 1,500 words for nothing. Or maybe not — with Atlético arguably under more pressure than ever before in the Simeone Era, tough calls may have to be made with younger players ready to step up in place of their leader. Gabi and Fernando Torres were “phased out” in 2017/18, Tiago Mendes the season before them. Conceivably, the same might happen to the man who, just months earlier, received yet more plaudits as the best defender in world football.
Things happen very quickly in sport, as in life. Such is the nature of things.