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Is Atlético Madrid’s form sustainable?

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Diego Simeone has changed Atlético for the better, but his team is displaying vulnerabilities at the back.

Cadiz CF v Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Atlético Madrid are new and improved thanks to a shift in Diego Simeone’s tactical approach. They are the favourites to win LaLiga, despite what Diego Simeone and his players’ refusal to say as much. Los Rojiblancos are on pace for nearly 100 points after collecting 50 in the opening 19 games. Things could be much worse at the Wanda Metropolitano.

But are two dropped points against Celta Vigo on Monday night a symptom of a more general problem with Simeone’s new system? Atlético are without a clean sheet in four and have conceded twice in consecutive games against Celta and Cádiz.

Atlético started the season with a convincing win over Granada. A very early season malaise set in after that game with draws against Huesca and Villarreal. In November, Simeone switched to a three-man defence in response to a very specific problem — Atlético weren’t generating enough chances, their best players weren’t performing anywhere near their best level and Cholo needed to arrest the decline before another season and league title slipped from their grasp.

(Note: Atlético switched to three at the back for the Cádiz game but had been playing Hermoso at left-back before that.)

For years, Atlético struggled to break down lesser opponents who were content to sit back and play out scoreless draws. It worked against some of the bigger European teams Atlético played against, but they had outgrown the tactic as a club filled with world-class talent.

“There has been growth from certain players and they give us options we didn’t have before,” Simeone said about Atlético’s good form this season.

Yannick Carrasco, Mario Hermoso and Thomas Lemar, particularly, have defined how this Atlético side plays. The Belgian has been used as a left wing-back and Hermoso as the left centre-back. Lemar, the player who has improved most this season, is being used as a left midfielder, who works hard defensively, links play in the middle and creates chances with his ability to spot a pass and glide past defenders.

It might come as no surprise that Atlético’s most rickety form has come when one, two or all three of these players have been absent. Between suspensions and COVID-19, Simeone has not been able to call on the triumvirate in three of the past five games. The coronavirus chaos has impacted everyone in LaLiga, but Atlético have suffered through a number of breakouts. Training hours before the Celta game was cancelled after pre-game plans were thrown into disarray when Lemar and Héctor Herrera returned positive results.

But something that might help Atlético — and indeed could be a reason why Atlético find themselves in the position they’re in — is LaLiga’s overall attacking quality, which has declined in 2020/21. LaLiga is the most cautious league in Europe’s top five this season. Teams are less adventurous in their pressing. Part of that is down to the talent drain to the Premier League, Serie A and the Bundesliga in recent years. This season, in particular, we are seeing a general decline in shot-creating actions, the lowest figure in the last four years — the absence of fans, the prevalence of fatigue and general uncertainty has crept in for many teams. Atlético have benefitted from it, in some ways.

When the whole of Europe embraced the gegen-pressing trend, Simeone was playing a boring old low block, 4-4-2. Now that everyone else is sitting back, maybe Cholo sees a chance to flip the script.

Simeone’s new formation was introduced to improve Atlético’s attacking options while maintaining the defensive solidity that is a staple of his philosophy. The 3-5-2’s benefits have been far more wide-ranging than just improving Atlético’s attack, though. It has made the team more unpredictable and it gives opponents headaches when it comes to game-planning.

But you can look at that the other way, too. It also gives Simeone a headache when his team can’t cope in a 3-5-2. We saw this on Monday against Celta (and in December against Real Madrid) when Simeone had to change his entire system at half-time. Cholo’s dogmatic approach in recent years means the principles are still baked into the players’ heads. He flipped to a 4-4-2 at the break on Monday and it only took one switch to get there — Torreira for Felipe, and it worked until it didn’t.

The tactical switch succeeded but, as Pep Guardiola might say, Atlético were playing with a “3-5-2 mentality” for the late equaliser. It’s hard to tell where the problem initially started, but Koke is asleep on the left and should be doing a better job telling Renan Lodi to help him out, Lodi himself needs to make a quicker decision with Celta progressing the ball, and José Giménez’s drift out to mark Brais Mendez left Stefan Savić scrambling to cover the eventual goalscorer Facundo Ferreyra.

This is one example, but it’s a problem for Simeone when he doesn’t have the personnel to play his chosen style, which changes now depending on game and context. It takes a diligent, versatile group of players to be able to change in and out of formations depending on the situation. With the old 4-4-2, there were no such concerns. While it was boring, it worked because there was no confusion. It might be just general fatigue, missing players and normal regression, but Atlético have been shakier lately at the back.

Atlético have Granada and two games against Levante in the league before Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea appear in Bucharest. Simeone should have his coronavirus-affected players back for that game. Atlético have struggled at certain times against high-pressing, ball-dominant teams and Tuchel is a coach who demands that much, at least, from his players.

Atlético should be fine, but it will be interesting to see if they can arrest their recent sloppiness at the back and what Cholo does to re-introduce that decade-old defensive stinginess, present since he took over at the club in 2011.