Atletico Madrid are four points behind Real Madrid in LaLiga and qualification into the knockout stages of the Champions League is still in their own hands. On paper, this season is going just fine.
But anyone who has watched Atlético this season would tell you a different story.
Under Diego Simeone, Atlético have become experts of the close call. They don’t typically do wide-margin victories and rarely make it easy on themselves. This was a trademark of Cholismo 1.0. More recently, Atlético’s horizons have broadened, while their tactics have become more exotic and harder to define.
The suffering, that Simeone trademark, still persists.
It is one of the great Spanish football clichés. The concept of suffering in Spanish manager nomenclature is to know how to keep control even when you don’t have control. It is that hazy space just after your alarm goes off where you are both awake and still asleep. You have control, but you also very much don’t.
There was a time when Atlético could suffer like no other team on the planet. If they took a lead, or if a draw suited them, it was almost impossible to break them down, futile even — like a man shouting into the face of the Niagara Falls.
But the line between planned suffering and losing control is a line Atlético might have wandered over.
“Knowing how to suffer” is a great way for managers to temper expectations, to let fans know winning easily isn’t normal and there will be times when a certain style must be deployed. It’s a harbinger of a close game, readying the fans for war.
In tight games (one goal between the teams), Atlético have spent more time losing by a goal than leading by a goal this season. Aside from Barcelona, no team in the top six “contenders” category has found themselves down a goal at quite this rate this season.
Atlético have gone at least a goal down to Villarreal, Espanyol, Getafe, and Real Sociedad. They have also conceded first against Milan and Liverpool (twice) in the Champions League.
(Nobody said it was going to be easy, but does it have to be this hard?)
Simeone’s team has also scored eight goals after the 76th minute this season and on two of those occasions, they needed to come back in injury time to beat Espanyol and Getafe. Luis Suárez scored late against Real Sociedad to salvage a point, and Felipe’s late header was enough to beat Osasuna last weekend.
Felipe’s heroics, and the rest, are not without their merit. But, for some reason, Atlético continue to find themselves in this situation — searching for late goals. The only two games they have won by more than one goal came against Barcelona and Real Betis.
When managers talk about suffering, they are always the victorious ones. They suffered...but in the end they resisted.
As we wait for Atlético’s season to turn and for them to go on a run, we should plan for contingency; maybe they will never get it together and this is who they are.
Simeone can’t seem to find his fixed 11 this season. This is down, in part, to injuries, and suspensions, and the numerous international breaks.
But it’s also because there is a rapidly-dwindling margin for error.
Too often this season, Atlético have not chosen the path of suffering but found themselves mired in close games against opponents they should be controlling.
Friedrich Nietzsche said “to live is to suffer,” but there is sometimes another way. Simeone needs to find it soon, or Atlético’s 2021/22 campaign could end up going nowhere.