Editor’s note: this column was published before Atlético’s Sunday afternoon contest versus Leganés.
It’s better to have competed and lost than to have never competed at all — to paraphrase that inspirational quote hanging on the wall of my local coffee shop.
Atlético Madrid are currently mired in their worst form since Diego Simeone took over as the manager of the club back on Dec. 23, 2011. The mattress makers were knocked out of the Copa del Rey and knocked back in their challenge for the title. They also have the small matter of Jürgen Klopp’s juggernaut in the Champions League. What were once isolated spells of poor form and worse luck have now become so prevalent that it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins.
You can love someone hopelessly and endlessly and feel a debt to them that you can never repay — while knowing that something doesn’t feel right. Simeone and Atlético are indelibly linked, now and forever, but their formal partnership will end. There was a time when it was impossible to guess when, but now it feels like it is inching closer by the game.
The halcyon days when Atlético took on the world and won, largely, are long gone. Those days when it felt like Atlético were fighting on behalf of the underdog have passed, because you can’t be an underdog when you spend €250 million on new signings. The team’s irresistible rise with a style that was counter to many of the prevailing trends was fascinating and charming in equal measure. Los Rojiblancos were an unapologetic throwback — and if you weren’t on the bandwagon, you were at least charting its progress.
Diego Costa and Filipe Luís both departed after Atlético’s successful league title run in 2014 but one returned soon after, homesick for his former coach and surrounds. Costa returned, too, three years after that. Both of them left but Atlético never left them. It felt like more of a family than a club — with Simeone sitting at the head of the family, scolding and daring his children to be bold.
It felt like we were all living inside a bubble, watching history unfold in front of our eyes, like kids of a certain vintage being able to rattle off the names of Louis van Gaal’s Champions League-winning Ajax side. You can recall that Simeone team with precision:
Thibaut Courtois in goal, Filipe and Juanfran raiding the wings. Diego Godín and Miranda in the middle. Gabi as the anchor, Tiago beside him. Arda and Koke on the wings with Raúl García keeping an eye on things from the sideline as he chomped at the bit. Diego Costa and David Villa up front.
You could predict the lineups and substitutions and how games were going to go. Atlético behaved like Muhammad Ali telling the world when he would knock an opponent out — a 1-0 win with a Costa goal in the second half was something you could put the mortgage on.
Simeone has always said he hated high-scoring games. A 4-3 for him didn’t read like an exciting game of football. He didn’t see seven goals, he saw seven mistakes. And El Cholo hates mistakes.
The goodwill Simeone accumulated as Atlético spread their net, scooped up fans, admirers, begrudgers and overall credibility reached far and wide. He gave Atlético a brand, an identity which brought attention. Along with sporting director Andrea Berta and other top decision-makers, Simeone helped Atlético become a massive club.
But the tide seems to be turning. And blame, rather than excuses, is being reached for first.
“The daily routine, the obligations, the demands have left Lemar robotic,” according to a source cited by El Mundo on Sunday. The same source claimed that the €70m midfielder is living with greater fear of making a mistake than he is of being creative and free. There’s another suggestion that Berta is to blame for not looking after the players once he signed them.
We know Atlético are in a completely different state than the one Simeone inherited back in 2011 after Albacete knocked them out of the cup. They can sign wonder kids for over €100 million. A “crisis” now means finishing third instead of second and being knocked out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals rather than not making it in.
I discussed the possibility of a fresh start over the summer and how, for the first time, there was outward expression that things were changing. Maybe it’s the revolving door that sees new players arrive every year and stalwarts of different statuses leave that means the fundamentals must be observed. A theory I posited last month is that Simeone is tired and has drained the last remnant out of his players. But whatever the case, nothing fundamental has changed. Simeone stuck to his guns when results started to turn and has not budged.
Who knows how this ends? Whatever does happen, the club is now cleaved into three eras — BC (before Cholo), AC (after Cholo), and then the big, bad future.