This is what the fans wanted, and this is what Diego Simeone feared.
Atlético Madrid are a more fearless and dynamic team since the season started, with a new-look attack featuring a fit João Félix and the returning Antoine Griezmann. That has led to more goals for and against, more shootouts and, in general, more fun.
But Cholo doesn’t like fun, he likes winning.
Atlético have been on the verge of a complete evolution for some time and have been stockpiling the kind of players that can play for elite clubs, the kind of players who are more comfortable chasing trophies than chasing the ball. The Luis Suárez signing 13 months ago was a harbinger of Atlético’s ambition, but Rodrigo De Paul’s addition this summer and Thomas Lemar’s assimilation into Simeone’s plans, along with the increased role for Yannick Carrasco, all explain the evolution sufficiently, too. Marcos Llorente’s transformation into an all-out attacking midfielder is another sign of the times.
Griezmann was added to the squad at the end of August, to boot. What’s a world class team without the occasional flurry in the transfer market to flex your muscles?
Simeone has always said the players he had available to him would dictate how his team plays. It has taken a while for Cholo to build a team he feels is capable of competing with a more-open style. It has also taken a while for Cholo to both trust the players who have been with him a while and to figure out how to best utilize them.
Atlético’s two most recent game have seen them concede two and three goals in open, exciting contests. They have just four clean sheets in 12 games this season — unheard of for Simeone’s past teams.
The rojiblancos’ rolling xG, however, tells a different story.
Atlético might be sightly more porous at the back than in the past. But saying that Atlético aren’t as solid as they one were is like Eliud Kipchoge clocking a poor marathon time; it’s still excellent.
Atlético are second in xG against in LaLiga and have only conceded eight goals in nine games this season. Four of those came in two bizarre games against Villarreal and Real Sociedad on Sunday. They boast clean sheets against an intense and improving Athletic Club as well as Barcelona, a traditional powerhouse that has fallen on hard times.
Atlético have long invested in the hard-man centre-back. Diego Godín and José María Giménez spring to mind and more recently, Felipe Monteiro and Stefan Savić fit the mold. These defenders are being asked to do more now than ever before, with Mario Hermoso often tasked with building from the back.
The problem now seems to be one of a transformation in thinking.
Jan Oblak is not as protected as he once was, and the central defenders are being asked to think a little quicker and cover larger areas of space behind them. That might explain some of the poor decisions by, for example, Hermoso against Liverpool and Felipe against Real Sociedad (when he hauled down David Silva for the free that led to La Real’s second goal).
Oblak’s form this season has been curious. A mistake against Getafe led to the opener in an eventual 2-1 comeback win and more recently, against Real Sociedad, he might have done a lot better from Alexander Isak’s goal free-kick in the second half that gave the visitors their two-goal lead.
Those goals give the impression that Atlético are not as good at the back as they once were, and that Oblak is indeed mortal after several superhuman seasons.
We don’t know where or how this ends for Atlético Madrid. If they are mired in an identity crisis, they have the quality to come out the other side while maintaining balance as they find themselves. Quality is not an issue, but consistency at an individual level and as a collective is another thing entirely.
It’s rare you hear a sentence such as the following when it comes to Atlético, but they are a joy to watch in full flow now. When all are available, Lemar, Félix, Griezmann, De Paul, Llorente, and Yannick Carrasco are the perfect blend of elegance, athleticism and technique — along with speed to burn. When they click, they’re irrepressible.
The only thing we do know is this evolution was inevitable. There is too much talent in Atlético’s squad now to be held back, and Simeone knows that. Shootouts like we saw in the past two games might replace the low-scoring affairs that were a trademark in Cholismo’s early years.
There was a floor when Atlético relied on a defensive system, but the team was limiting its ceiling at the same time. With this new approach, the variance in performance might swing wildly, but there is no ceiling. And with Atlético’s increased financial strength, plus given where LaLiga’s other contenders are positioned, that can only mean good things in the future for Simeone and company.