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Lack of internal competition proving costly for Atlético

Just six months after winning LaLiga, a team with several “untouchable” starters has developed evident problems.

Atletico Madrid v AC Milan: Group B - UEFA Champions League
Mario Hermoso has started 17 of Atlético’s 18 games this season.
Photo by Rubén de la Fuente Pérez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Atlético Madrid demonstrated a worrying inability to meet the moment in Wednesday’s sad, anticlimactic Champions League capitulation to AC Milan. Playing at home and needing a win to continue depending on themselves in the competition’s group stage, Atleti fell apart at the end of an anxiety-riddled performance, played at a standard far below what is expected. The rojiblancos landed only two shots on target — both from midfielders — and hovered around 40 percent possession throughout the game.

Atlético’s makeshift 4-4-2 with Rodrigo De Paul as a right-winger did not bother Milan. To the contrary. Stefano Pioli’s men were comfortable on the ball and stuck to a clear, press-heavy game plan throughout. Central midfielders Franck Kessié and Sandro Tonali were clean and efficient in both phases, with Kessié setting up Junior Messias’s winning goal. When needed, Pioli made smart substitutions that enhanced and modified his side’s ability to reach its objective — Zlatan Ibrahimović might have scored the winner moments before Messias did.

On the other touchline, Simeone threw on two natural full-backs, two secondary strikers, and a central midfielder — and Atlético still looked nowhere near challenging Ciprian Tătăruşanu.

Atletico Madrid v AC Milan: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Claudio Villa/AC Milan via Getty Images

“It is a complicated situation, but we have gotten into this situation ourselves. I don’t know why this is happening, we have a team that can do much more. We have to play well, win (in Portugal) and hope it is enough to be in the round of 16, which is where we want to be,” Jan Oblak said after the loss.

Cholo’s scramble to correct the errant initial strategy made Atlético even more desperate. The squad he has before him is arguably the most talented he’s had in 10 years as Atleti’s manager, yet it’s also one of the more-imbalanced groups he’s overseen. There are five forwards to four center-backs. There is one natural left-back, and he’s rarely used. There is only one defensive midfielder.

Simeone has a say in how the first-team squad is built, but it is ultimately the club’s responsibility to make intelligent, sensible transfers — players who can compete and contribute within a defined, repeatable playing style. Just three months into the 2021/22 season, it’s obvious sporting director Andrea Berta made a fundamental mistake over the summer in failing to acquire adequate defensive cover — such as an extra central defender and/or another defensive-minded pivot.

A disproportionate squad, combined with Simeone’s stubbornness, means the competition for places the coach often talks about in press conferences has been reduced greatly.

José Giménez, Atleti’s third captain, has been in Simeone’s starting 11 virtually whenever he’s been healthy — he has been named a starter in 13 of the 14 games he’s played. He took responsibility for Messias’s winner on Wednesday, which came at the end of a dismal individual outing.

Though Giménez struggled positionally and misplaced several simple passes, his place in the team isn’t under threat.

Atletico Madrid v AC Milan: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

For all Mario Hermoso’s gifts as a ball-playing center-back, he is a mediocre one-on-one defender. Hermoso has shown little growth defensively over his two-plus seasons in Madrid. His glaring weaknesses in this area have been circled in bright red ink this season with Atlético shipping so many goals.

However, Hermoso has started every game except one.

Koke is in an extended run of bad form, which I wrote about and contextualized over the last international break. The captain is not being put in a position where he can succeed, and Milan ran rings around him Wednesday as he completed under 80 percent of his passes on the night.

Even in a vacuum, he’s playing poorly. But no one is realistically challenging Koke, a living legend, for his place in the 11.

Luis Suárez has appeared in every game this season and is the team’s top goalscorer with eight. As I expected, Simeone has been more open to starting Suárez on the bench in certain games, though El Pistolero still gets the nod in Atlético’s marquee matchups.

His situation is unique given his productivity and killer instinct, but the range of what Suárez can do on the pitch continues to narrow. He is a poor fit when Atlético and its complement of secondary strikers wants to get out and run wild on the counterattack. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Atleti’s best Champions League performance this season happened while he watched from the bench.

Atletico Madrid v AC Milan: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Along with Kieran Trippier (injured), Marcos Llorente (now back from injury), Yannick Carrasco, Jan Oblak, and Stefan Savić, these are Simeone’s mainstays. All helped Atlético win its first league title in seven years a few short months ago. And all the aforementioned players except Trippier have logged over 1,000 minutes already this season.

The low standard to Atlético’s play in 2021/22 has arguably come down to having too many unchallenged players growing complacent in the starting lineup game after game. It’s hard to see how there is a healthy, egalitarian competition for places when Simeone is turning to these same players even as they’re delivering worse results.

For example, Matheus Cunha (197 minutes in all competitions) missed a chance from four yards at the end of Wednesday’s loss. One wonders if the €30 million summer acquisition would have been sharper had he been given a start or two rather than 11 short substitute appearances.

It appears Cunha’s Atlético career is over before it’s ever really started, which would be a shame. Simeone favors Ángel Correa over the talented Brazilian, not to mention Antoine Griezmann — who has started each of his past seven appearances.

Griezmann’s return has even had a negative effect on Correa, who hasn’t scored since August and hasn’t played 90 minutes since Sept. 28, just as his influence within Atleti’s attack was growing. Something similar can be said about presently-injured João Félix (569 minutes).

Renan Lodi (455 minutes) has appeared in all except two games between LaLiga and the Champions League, though he’s yet to crack even the 500-minute barrier as December approaches. It seems Simeone has discounted the 23-year-old entirely despite Atlético’s need for a reliable left-sided defender. The player’s development has unmistakably stalled after a promising debut season in 2019/20.

Šime Vrsaljko (228 minutes) has demonstrated that he remains a capable full-back after multiple knee injuries, and he’s garnered more consideration lately. However, he’s started only one game this season, and his return from the cold is mostly due to Trippier’s shoulder injury. If you want to know how much Simeone really trusts the Croatian, he benched him for converted right wing-back Llorente in the Milan game.

Thomas Lemar’s injuries should have opened the door for Geoffrey Kondogbia (623 minutes) to stake his place in the 11 as a partner for the often-overrun Koke. Instead, he’s played just 73 minutes across his past four appearances as Simeone has inexplicably turned away from him. Perhaps he’s still feeling the effects of a muscle injury that cost him a few games, but Kondogbia’s lack of sharpness was noticeable in the draw at Valencia and the loss to Milan — he was ineffective on and off the ball as the rojiblancos’ opponents mounted late rallies.

So while we can’t necessarily predict how Atlético are going to play in a given fixture, we can with reasonable confidence predict roughly 80 percent of Simeone’s starting 11 for each game. That is a problem requiring an immediate solution.