“Cholismo” — Atlético Madrid’s now-signature playing style — is in somewhat of a crisis.
It’s not whether Atlético need to change something — it’s about how they do it. Diego Simeone was asked if he is worried about the recent lack of goals in an interview on Spanish radio, and he avoided it with a very clever side-step.
“I’m worried about getting better” came his reply, as he flipped a precise question into a more general theme.
Simeone has battled with the simultaneity of thinking like an underdog and actually being a favourite since Atlético won the league six seasons ago. Possession, once a contagion, is now his friend. But goals are harder to come by. The harder he has tried, the more difficult it has gotten.
It’s feels like a theme as old as Cholismo itself — a Diego Simeone side has had to fight for goals, sometimes even just one. It’s not the same old story, though — it’s worse now. Atlético are off to their worst league start under the Argentine, with just seven goals from eight games. Only five teams have scored fewer goals, and all are relegation contenders. Despite the fact that Kieran Trippier has added another dimension to their attack and João Félix may be a Ballon d’Or candidate in the making, the rojiblanco attack has floundered.
Here’s the most important thing Simeone can do: #FreeSaúl.
Saúl Ñíguez needs more, as they say in Spain, “protagonism.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that Saúl has a little bit of everything. He has a dash of fellow Spain U-21 graduate Fabián Ruiz’s physicality and energy, a sprinkle of Dani Ceballos’ dribbling, shades of Thomas Partey’s passing. He has goals, eagerness and youth (still just 24).
But Saúl has been shackled in Simeone’s side now for some time. When the canterano isn’t moonlighting as a left-back, he’s wandering aimlessly around midfield looking to get involved in an effort to set himself apart. He is a player born to play a leading role, but he’s reduced to being an extra in a confused midfield.
During the successful 2013/14 campaign, Simeone opted for a double pivot more often than not. A lot of times, he played two defensive midfielders in Mario Suárez and Gabi, or Tiago and Gabi — basically, someone and Gabi. You can see where I’m going with this. Héctor Herrera or Marcos Llorente could play the role of protector of the back four, while Thomas Partey plays in the role of an outright central midfielder. The problem is that Simeone feels obliged to play Koke and Saúl. And Saul is the odd man out here in a four-man midfield because Koke is undroppable.
Another potentially game-changing tweak that will help Saúl could be to instruct the full-backs not to drive forward as much. This would free him and free Koke to aid in attack rather than cover so much.
The Herrera-Saúl duo didn’t work against Celta Vigo, Koke and Saúl definitely didn’t combine well against Real Sociedad and Llorente-Saul wasn’t a success against Eibar. Simeone has tried, but he needs to find a way to get more out of Koke, give Saúl the keys to the midfield, partner Thomas with a more horizontally-inclined midfielder to cover defensively and only then can he watch them flourish.
In addition, the two-striker system worked perfectly for Simeone back in 2013/14 — mainly because Diego Costa was still a bastard, but also because of David Villa’s partnership with him. Villa was in the winter of his career, but that season at Atlético was like a beautifully sunny day in the middle of December. This season, Costa and Álvaro Morata haven’t had the chance to play but also haven’t connected well when they have.
“There is something that is keeping that lack of goals going,” Simeone said as he defended Atlético’s style and form. “We are playing better than other years, better transitions. We are missing that drive forward like in Russia [against Lokomotiv Moscow] and in other games.”
The league has changed. Wages and transfer fees have changed. Football has changed. Once upon a time, it was a novelty for Atlético to make it to the Champions League and the knockout stages. Now it’s an obligation. There was a time before Simeone and before the Wanda Metropolitano that a draw against the colchoneros wasn’t a good result. You played them to win and there was nothing especially daunting about playing them.
Now though, teams playing at home are afraid of the damage João Félix can do, they’re wary of Trippier and Renán Lodi, of Thomas and Saúl. A draw isn’t a good result against Atlético anymore — it’s a great result. This is the greatest change Simeone has had to deal with and it’s at the root of his problems. He’d probably prefer to be defensive but that would just lead to 0-0 draws ad infinitum. See what happened at Real Valladolid last weekend for proof.
Cholo needs to find a balance in midfield and discover his most devastating attack. That might mean changing things every game. Amidst that uncertainty, Atlético need to find consistency. Simeone did as good a job as any manager in recent memory of finding that consistency at the back. He has to find a way to make Atlético a threat going forward. The time is now. Their success this season is riding on it.
Atlético are third as of now, and Simeone doesn’t really care how he wins the league as long as he wins it, even if it does come by default. No team has blown us away thus far in LaLiga — and if Atlético could find a way to just score goals, there’s no reason to think they can’t do what they did five-plus years ago.