The answer to Atlético Madrid’s problem is simple and complicated: they don’t create enough good chances and need to fix that.
While you compose yourself after the profundity of that last sentence, allow me to explain.
Atlético have gone from playing a largely risk-free, counter-attacking style to a relatively risk-free, possession-based style.
They look different, but the results are similar.
In Atlético’s previous iteration, they waited on the other team to make a mistake so they could punish them. Now, Atlético have more of the ball, and the onus is on them to make a move and thus make mistakes.
It’s not something Diego Simeone is entirely comfortable with, given his dedication to Cholismo. But he has been forced to adapt, albeit slower than many would have liked.
Yet Simeone misunderstands an aspect of possession-based football, the most important aspect of possession-based football.
The goal is to slice through a team with inch-perfect passing, though that’s unrealistic. So the goal then becomes to set up a team so that when they do make a mistake, they can be be in a good position to then counter the mistake and create chances.
John Muller explains this concept in his (recently deceased) newsletter:
The reason good teams build slow isn’t that long possessions are likely to break down the defense on the first try; it’s that they set you up to play transition defense in the opponent’s half, which is even more dangerous than a line-breaking pass as a means to disorganize the opponent.
In many ways, Atlético are perfectly-constructed. They have width and speed on the wings. They have enormous energy in the middle and the technical skill to play possession football and whatever type of passing Simeone requires.
The problem is that last pass, and what Atlético do when that last pass doesn’t work out.
German coaches learned a while ago that it’s too hard to create chances consistently via smooth, slick passing movements into the penalty area. Even the worst teams in the top leagues won’t let you just walk into the penalty area and score — but they’re vulnerable in transition.
That’s why Jürgen Klopp said “no play-maker in the world can be as good as good counter-pressing.”
It was in front of our noses all along.
Matheus Cunha is the high-energy striker Atlético need, in order to get on the end of the dainty through-balls delivered once the opposition is pushed back into a defensive crouch. Cunha has the willingness to press high and disrupt the opponent’s transitions when that line-breaking pass doesn’t work.
This is a slight that haunted Luis Suárez at Barcelona, and it continues to be a problem. Suárez turns 35 soon. He doesn’t have the legs to ease Atlético’s evolution into the team Simeone needs them to become.
Once Atlético miss a pass, there is a collective shoulder-drop as they retreat into position and start fresh. Atlético have 54.6 percent of possession this season, a 10-year high under Simeone. But they still struggle to break opponents down.
They are missing just one ingredient: risk.
The rojiblancos need a striker capable of pressing high so the whole system doesn’t collapse when midfielders have to pick up the slack.
This means it’s Cunha time.
Atlético play Mallorca at the weekend and then play at Porto for their Champions League lives next week. Suárez has scored one goal in seven games and doesn’t have a shot on target in three games. They need a source of inspiration to help them create better chances.
In Cunha, you get two for the price of one. He can finish off moves, and his counter-pressing might be the single best play-maker at Atlético’s disposal.