Atlético Madrid have played poorly and looked nowhere near a title side at times, but they find themselves three points off the top of the table going into 2019. With typical drama at Real Madrid and Barcelona not quite as dominant as they were last year, the door is open for Atlético, and a topsy-turvy Liga Santander season may play into their favor.
Who they’ll play
Three sides stand between Atlético and a serious title challenge — the current leaders Barcelona, Sevilla in third and Real Madrid in fourth. Atlético will face Barça on April 7 at Camp Nou (where hopefully Atleti will be the team to deliver the 90th minute dagger this time). Currently, the most pressing issue is the first game back, against Sevilla on Jan. 6. A win in Andalucía would do wonders for Atleti’s momentum going into the second half of the season. The home leg of the Madrid Derby will take place Feb. 10, and perhaps this year more than any other in the Diego Simeone era is one where a win for the good guys is likely with the cross-town rivals’ chaos and uncertainty.
Where the struggles have been
Atlético boast the most goal scorers of any of the top four with 11, but no player other than Antoine Griezmann has scored more than two Liga goals. For the most part, Atleti’s attack has been a one man show, without somebody else to bolster Griezmann’s scoring. Nikola Kalinić did well once getting a run in the team towards the end of the year, but as soon as Diego Costa is fit, he will be once again relegated to the bench.
The second-biggest disappointment after Costa in terms of pre-season expectations was Saúl, who has found himself deployed at left back as a result of injuries and the effectiveness of a Koke-Rodri midfield. Saúl’s interceptions, tackles and dribbles are all down from his last two seasons on a per-game basis. His talent is undeniable, but his role in the team has become muddled and Atlético need him to be a big contributor in the second half.
The final struggle relates more to the mentality of the team, which for years has been based on Simeone’s style of defensive football, fused with lethal counterattacking and unquestionable commitment. In previous years, Simeone has tried to adapt this style to produce more goals, but because of the impact it has on his defense, it only ever lasts a few matches. Much of what fans call on to change revolves around the style, but it is more likely that performances by attacking players is the cause of the lack of production this year. Atlético have gotten pretty much nothing from their wingers, but there is reason to be optimistic for both Vitolo and Thomas Lemar. The issue is what to do with Gelson Martins, who has been virtually invisible since arriving at the club.
Who might go
It is no secret that since time immemorial Atlético have been on shaky financial ground. There is a very real possibility of more departures in January, as well as a very loud silence related to negotiations between Sporting and Atlético with regard to Gelson’s contract termination.
Thomas Partey has also been vocal about his disappointment related to his lack of playing time this year, and though he tried to walk back those comments he has till been linked with a move to England, and possibly to Manchester City. Certainly, selling Thomas to City would be financially beneficial and Atleti’s best opportunity to extract full value for the midfielder. Whether or not the mattress makers can afford even less depth is open for debate, but if it could fund the purchase of another full back the tradeoff might be worth it.
Finally, the drama surrounding Lucas Hernández and Bayern Munich was hot and heavy for a few days but seems to have stabilized. It is no surprise that big teams like Bayern have interest in Lucas, but for a multitude of reasons that transfer in particular seemed unlikely.
Reasons to hope
Atlético have yet to get the best out of their attackers, but the talent is there for a potential step forward. The likes of Lemar, Vitolo, Costa and Ángel Correa all have the ability to be game-changers in the second half on the season. Griezmann is more than capable of carrying this team, but he will need help as the season wears on. Atleti may need to make their own luck or rely on poor form from or injuries to Barcelona and Sevilla.
Reasons to worry
The rojiblancos overperformed their expected points (per Understat) by a larger margin than any of the other top four teams in Spain. There was also a degree of overperformance in terms of xGoals, but by a smaller number than their xPoints. The argument is there to be made that Simeone’s style circumvents xG and xPTS but some regression must be expected, most likely with Griezmann. Should Atlético’s other attackers continue to struggle, the goals may dry up entirely. Any more injuries to Atleti’s back line could also be fatal to a title tilt, with the numbers back there short as it stands. Finally, Real Madrid stand to improve in the second half, and Barcelona have some young, very talented players like Malcom and Ousmane Dembélé who can bolster their big two in Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez.