The fanfare has died down. The plaudits have been scaled back. Those in the crowd who once couldn’t take their eyes off the field can now be seen fiddling with their phones out of boredom. Cholismo — Diego Simeone’s patented philosophy for his Atlético Madrid sides — is on life support, closer to its last breath than before.
We can all agree Atlético aren’t going great. They’re not particularly fun to watch, and have drawn six of their last nine league games. They’ve struggled for goals or any attacking consistency at all. Despite all this, they are a point off LaLiga’s summit — Barcelona and Real Madrid have a game in hand, but it’s against each other, so one or both will drop points. The mattress makers are also four points clear of third in Group D of the Champions League and have stayed competitive despite wholesale changes, injuries and suspensions.
A lot of that is thanks to an ember flickering through the flames. It turns out Simeone can still extract more from his 22-man squad than even his players may have thought — and this is evident in how he has struck a tune out of Álvaro Morata.
“I didn’t feel like doing anything, leaving home, talking to people, nothing.”
During a recent interview with television program “Jugones,” Morata spoke about his time at Chelsea and came across as a player incapable of handling the stress that comes with the modern game.
“I did think about playing somewhere very far away,” he continued when asked about whether he considered retirement. “Playing without pressure, without having to win every Sunday, without having to concentrate for matches.”
Morata is one of the most frustrating strikers in all of football. The 27-year-old has all the physical attributes to be one of the best, but he has never been consistent enough to break into the elite. He has constantly teetered between brilliant and bog-standard. A bizarre injury and several attempts to explain it ended his time in London. It was going the same way for him at Atlético, too, with glimmers of excellence lost amidst inexplicable droughts.
See, Morata has been questioned over his mentality and fragility. His normality might be a better way to explain it, but normality doesn’t tend to blend too well with elite footballers.
“People think we’re machines; they don’t realise that behind a bad run there’s almost always a personal problem, some family issue,” he told Sid Lowe in a Guardian interview two years ago. “You have feelings, you make mistakes, you’re a person.”
Morata said he tried to sign with Atlético numerous times in the past and eventually got his wish, with a gap year in London facilitating a move that Real Madrid would not sanction directly. His grandmother is an Atlético fan and he spent time in the academy prior to his move across the city — no wonder he says he feels at home in red and white. It took him time to get going, but Simeone has him on track to surpass the heights he once hit at Juventus and earlier in his Madrid career.
It all started when Atlético went to Mallorca and Morata was told to get ready to enter as a late substitute. He did come on and swiftly went back off again — a red card after two very quick yellows. Simeone was furious and fans were flummoxed.
In the weeks after the Mallorca game, Simeone came out and chastised someone — believed to be Morata — saying anyone who doesn’t want to do things his way and suffer for the team won’t get along with him.
Since then, the Spain international has scored seven goals in seven for club and country. His expected goals per game has never been higher at 0.92, and his expected assists of 0.36 per 90 is also his best.
With Diego Costa’s future firmly up in the air, Atlético needed someone to score goals when things weren’t going as planned. There is anger in Morata’s recent goal celebrations and a genuine pang of hunger to score, showing Simeone has elicited a response from his number nine. He had never scored in five consecutive games, let alone six and seven when you add in his goal against Malta last week. He had only scored four in a row once in the top flight (he did it twice with Real Madrid Castilla in Segunda B), and that spell came back in October 2016 with goals against Legia Warsaw, Athletic Club, Cultural Leonesa and Alavés.
Perhaps all Morata needed was to get back home, to reconnect with a club that wanted him and a manager who knew how to reach him. That’s something Simeone, despite his flaws, has never lost.