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Observations about Atlético at the one-third mark: Koke’s crossroads and the champions’ identity

Atlético’s start to the 2021/22 season has been anything but straightforward.

Valencia CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

The sun did rise again after Atlético Madrid’s crushing collapse at Valencia. The temperature continues to touch the mid-80s Fahrenheit in Arizona, even in the second week of November (who knows what could be causing this, hmm). The season rolls on...after another FIFA break, of course, to which Atlético have ceded 13 players.

This international break occurs at roughly the one-third mark of the 2021/22 LaLiga season, and Atlético sit fourth in the league with a game in hand on most teams in the division. The defending champions are doing some things really well, scoring at least two goals in seven of the past eight.

Marcos Llorente, whose 23 goal contributions helped fire Atlético to the title last season, has missed most of the season. Thomas Lemar has been injured twice, and Diego Simeone has found solutions to keep his attack humming anyway.

Atleti are doing some things poorly, though.

After allowing more than one expected goal on only two occasions over the season’s first 10 games (keeping four clean sheets along the way), the rojiblancos have been hit for 12 goals over the past half-dozen games.

A regression from the often-superhuman Jan Oblak has proven catastrophic for this defense, where concentration has been an issue — and where there are no obvious in-house solutions, given the squad’s imbalance with respect to defensive-minded midfielders or rugged central defenders in the classic Cholismo mold.

This seems as good a time as any to take stock of where Atlético are, and to try to get at where Simeone’s men are heading.

Valencia CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images

Let’s start with some good.

I think there’s a perception Atlético have lost its identity this season, the goal leakage over the past month showing a team flailing in disarray.

I think this perception is incorrect, and that Simeone began actively fashioning the new Atleti — “Cholismo 2.0” — two seasons ago.

What we are seeing now, positively and negatively, can be construed as Cholismo 2.0’s final form.

Atlético couldn’t buy a goal before the final week of September. Porto and Athletic Club came to Madrid and kept clean sheets, and Alavés had few problems shutting down the champs in a stunning win on Sept. 25.

Since the 1-0 loss at Mendizorroza, Atlético have generated at least 1.5 expected goals five times from 10 games and haven’t lost again in LaLiga (though the Levante and Valencia draws certainly felt worse).

Antoine Griezmann’s re-adaptation has been key. (Is it still weird to anyone else that he’s actually come back?) Cholo has made it a point to bed Griezmann in to a starkly-different team from the 2018/19 edition, when he was the leading light in a rigid, fragile setup that basically succeeded or failed based upon his individual form.

Griezmann has been “recovered,” so to speak, and he’s kept his one-time replacement João Félix on the bench the past two league games. The 30-year-old has scored five times in his past seven appearances — including an astonishing golazo at Mestalla last weekend that on another day, maybe in another season, would have sealed a win.

Yet this forms part of Atlético’s fresh look, as well. Leads are not as secure as they once were. No longer can Simeone lock the door and toss the key into the Manzanares — Atleti must insist, insist, and insist some more.

Griezmann is performing well within an even-newer Atlético’s flow, lining up lately on the left-hand side of a fluid 3-4-3 that morphs into a 5-2-3 out of possession. The Frenchman still drops into the midfield line to receive the ball — but Ángel Correa has joined him on the opposite side, which is why the 3-4-3 is successful from an offensive standpoint.

We saw this most prominently in Atlético’s win over Real Betis, a 3-0 romp at a rainy Wanda Metropolitano.

Rather than persisting with one main point of attack, multiple players are dropping behind the forward line to progress the play without losing any bite around the penalty area. This was a stumbling block for Atlético in past seasons — intelligent opponents would zero in on Griezmann, thus funneling the ball wide and slowing down the game into a war of attrition. Too often, Atleti’s results hinged on individual brilliance and/or a defensive mistake to compensate for that unimaginative attacking scheme.

(Speaking of biting — Luis Suárez’s seven goals lead the team, and this further offensive growth explains how he continues to produce despite moving like a cadaver in most matches.)

This superb graphic, via Twitter’s @DatoBHJ, shows Atlético are pressing ahead decisively with its evolution away from that staid, stolid style.

The colchoneros work to advance the ball into better and better shooting positions and are relying more on long passes than accurate crossing. They build through passing more often now than at any prior point in the Simeone Era, and they’re playing at one of LaLiga’s highest tempos.

@DatoBHJ

Those are the good developments. Now for the not-so-good.

Where Atlético have been going wrong is on the other end. Simeone’s side no longer really resembles the defensive juggernaut from the past half-decade. It’s the reason why even as Griezmann hits form, his goals aren’t guiding Atleti to victories — his game-tying goal against AC Milan in September is the sole time he’s scored in a win this season.

Valencia registered 0.93 expected goals from set pieces in Sunday’s game, per BetweenThe Posts’s metric. Hugo Duro’s second goal — the 96th-minute equalizer — was a dead-ball disasterclass from Atlético. Stefan Savić and Héctor Herrera (who does not have a real role in this squad) were out of position on the easy near-post header that nestled in behind Oblak.

Levante generated 1.79 xG from set pieces in Atlético’s 2-2 draw at the Ciutat de València. The granotas’ goals came from two penalties, but they also tortured Atleti on the counter. Fast attackers and lax refereeing created a favorable climate for the frogs, who outplayed the champions for most of the night and were fair value for the draw despite Pablo González Fuertes’s inability to get a grip on the game.

Injuries and individual mistakes at the back are seeping into Atlético’s midfield, which has had to contend with Lemar and Llorente’s absences for weeks. This leads us to Koke, who is neither playing how he wants nor how Atleti need him to play.


The downside to Atlético’s 3-4-3/5-2-3 is it’s putting Koke in a blender each game. This imbalanced setup creates exciting showdowns with Atleti’s opponents, but it has corresponded directly with the captain’s decreased impact after a long season for club and country.

It may not seem true, but it is — Koke turns 30 in January. He made his 515th appearance for the club last weekend, and the games record will be all his if he trots out 39 more times. That’s a gaudy number. He seems bound to get there in 2022.

However, I’m tempted to wonder if we’re seeing the start of Atlético moving beyond its captain in the way it moved past previous skippers Gabi (2018) and Diego Godín (2019).

Koke’s current statistics in league play, via fbref.com, don’t make for happy reading:

  • He is delivering passes into the 18-yard box at a clip 15 percent lower than his excellent 2020/21 season — the first campaign where Simeone fully entrusted him with setting the team’s tempo.
  • His 0.46 key passes (per 90 minutes) are a career low, and he’s seen a 30 percent cut to his shot-creating actions.
  • His 2.64 combined tackles and interceptions are his lowest since at least 2017/18, and he is being dispossessed at a rate 40 percent higher than last season.

A more attack-oriented, possession-based Atleti side should be playing to Koke’s strengths as a hub for the team’s buildup play, but he remains stuck doing the “Koke Work” he did four, five, six seasons ago. He is the single pivot in the team’s formation(s) of choice — and instead, Rodrigo De Paul (four shot-creating actions, eight progressive carries per 90) has been behind much of the danger from the middle.

Atletico Madrid v Villarreal - La Liga Santander Photo by Rubén de la Fuente Pérez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Simeone won’t take an unwise decision and bench the club captain. We are nowhere near that point. Koke is one season removed from marshaling this squad to the title, and his performances for Luis Enrique’s Spain — where he always plays next to an anchor like Rodri or Sergio Busquets — remain high-caliber. He’s not washed. In fact, he captained La Roja in their 1-0 win over Greece on Thursday, when he took 113 touches and completed 90 passes on the right side of a midfield three.

But Atlético’s present setup doesn’t suit Koke from a playing standpoint, which is no small matter. And no matter how you slice it, 2021 has been a long year for him. More rest (or a more defensive-minded partner) could be just what he needs — but it’s what one of the most important players in club history is unlikely to get.