Maybe it’s a consequence of Atletico’s past or because of their unstable footing amongst the elite of European footing or because Diego Simeone has warped expectations with two Champions League finals since arriving at the club in 2011. However, their fear of losing is outweighing their desire to win as they continue to look for, and fail to make, the next step into the upper echelon of football’s hierarchy.
Atlético Madrid fell apart at the Allianz stadium on Tuesday night when it looked like they were in control of the tie after their 2-0 victory at the Wanda Metropolitano. Their attack sputtered, their defence creaked and their typically resolute style folded in the face of an - albeit - awesome display from possibly the Champions League’s greatest ever competitor.
Ronaldo, more than a little vexed after the abuse he received at the Wanda three weeks ago, said “this is a champions mentality and it’s why they signed me.” It’s ironic that Atlético, a team perpetually sitting between having nothing to lose and too much on the line could be knocked out by a Ronaldo-led team for the last five years; a man with seemingly magical powers to summon enough will power to drag his sides, who sometimes go kicking and screaming, over the line. If Ronaldo has an abundance of belief, Atletico are deficient.
It was one of the toughest draws Atlético could have gotten with Juventus placed as early season favourites. Having to travel to Turin for the second leg was always going to make for an uncomfortable night but nobody thought it would go this bad without a single shot on target in 90 minutes of football. Griezmann was both honest and succinct: “We picked the wrong night to fuck it up.”
Maybe no questions should be asked of Simeone provided he keeps getting them into the Champions League. But the club had explicitly stated their desire to be in the final of the competition in early June. When you paint it as an all or nothing scenario, and you get knocked out before you can win it all. What’s left? They broke their transfer fee in the summer when they bought Thomas Lemar from AS Monaco and readjusted the furniture to make a deal for Alvaro Morata in January in the hope that he could add the goals to power them to the latter rounds. But the same problems keep surfacing.
This is the second year Atlético have been knocked out of the Champions League early although last year was particularly bad. It doesn’t get much worse than a group stage elimination after two 0-0 draws with Qarabag sealing their fate. Getting beaten by Juventus at home should not be seen as a failure in and of itself.
But therein lies the problem. If you focus too closely on results, you miss the forest for the trees and the excellent work Simeone has done. But the nature of these setbacks is what should cause concern. Atlético have no Plan B and no extra gear to move into when the landscape changed in front of them. And now they have little to play for for the remainder of the year.
Maybe there is an issue between how the director of football, Andrea Berta, sees the team evolving and Simeone’s resistance to change. Or the suspicion Simeone looks at newcomers with and his loyalty to some of his warriors from a previous epoch, a different Atlético. When Cholo arrived at the club, the players adjusted to him. Now, with more money, higher wages and an overall better team, maybe it’s time for Simeone to adjust to the quality of his squad and play to their strengths.
It’s difficult to see the club imposing anything on Simeone but as a ruthlessly self-critical manager, he should be willing to see where the problems lie and bring in an attacking coach, alter his system this summer and make them a more dynamic side.
One swallow doesn’t make a summer and one performance doesn’t make a season or cover the cracks and that’s all Atlético Madrid have to show for themselves this season. That night at the Wanda when they beat Juventus with set-pieces; the Atlético of old. Survive and advance.
Sadly, that era is over and the way they played a relic of the past.
And Simeone, for someone as introspecting as he is, has to accept, at least privately, that something needs to change.