You’ll need an appointment to get into Atlético Madrid’s physio room in the coming days.
By the end of the Real Betis game on Sunday night, João Félix had winced off the field in pain after injuring his ankle and Kieran Trippier had signaled to the sideline that his night was over after hurting his back. Luis Suárez was watching from the stands along with Thomas Lemar, a last-minute injury absentee, and Moussa Dembélé was missing after he collapsed at training a couple weeks ago.
It all sounds very grim for Atlético, and it is very grim for Atlético as we launch into the league’s final furlong. They’ve had it rough this season, and even more so in recent weeks. That’s before we get to all the absences due to COVID, including Lucas Torreira missing time after his mother’s death. As many as eight players have needed to be away from the team because of the virus this season — along with Diego Simeone, who learned that pep talks over Zoom don’t carry as much heft as they do in person.
Welcome to the new normal. The new normal for everyone, not just Atlético.
Atlético have the league’s smallest squad and have used the fewest players, 25, this season along with Barcelona, Real Betis and Athletic Club. Compare that to Cádiz and Granada, who have both used 33 players — the latter’s coach, Diego Martínez, has been forced to rotate due to European obligations. It might not help that Atlético are one of LaLiga’s older teams, too, and have shifted to a more press-heavy style of play while maintaining Simeone’s “go hard or go home” mentality.
With limited time and finances available to build a more competitive squad, the lack of numbers could prove decisive for Atlético in the next few weeks.
Fitness concerns this season
Real Madrid have been without Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal for long spells this year, while Eden Hazard’s only run of games was six in LaLiga before he succumbed to another ankle injury. Madrid had a makeshift back line against Barcelona that consisted of only one regular starter, Ferland Mendy. When Lucas Vázquez went down (he’s out for the year), it was a last resort for Zinedine Zidane to bring in Álvaro Odriozola — the third choice right-back — beside his two second-choice central defenders.
Barcelona have been affected, too, with Sergi Roberto, Gerard Piqué and Ansu Fati missing the bulk of the year due to injury. COVID hasn’t affected them or Madrid as much as Atlético but Piqué’s bad knee, the perpetual uncertainty over Samuel Umtiti and untimely Ronald Araujo absences forced Ronald Koeman to get inventive — Frenkie de Jong is officially the first ever central-defending-box-to-box-number-10.
Back to Atlético, the only players to have missed significant time this season are José Gimenez, Šime Vrsaljko, Héctor Herrera and Diego Costa. Only one player on that list is a starter. The sporadic COVID absences have not been unmanageable.
In some ways, the injuries and heroic battle to the finish line obfuscates what has been a lack of ambition in the attacking third — which poor rotations earlier in the season have magnified.
A rock and a hard place
Simeone has been left with an unenviable task in some ways. Suárez commands respect as one of the best strikers of the last decade, and he came to Atlético to both play and to prove a point — he’s not finished yet. At 34, he has to play to stay fit, and the Uruguayan doesn’t take particularly kindly to being removed, as we have seen with his passive-aggressive smiles on the sideline when Simeone has had the gall to substitute him.
At Atlético, Simeone is under so much pressure to compete against two behemoths that the margin for error is smaller. Cholo doesn’t have Lionel Messi to bail him out when things go awry, nor does he have the embarrassment of riches Zidane can call upon.
Atlético have given by far the fewest minutes to under-23 players this season. This is a trend, and while you shouldn’t expect to see much experimenting done in the next six weeks, the reason for all the injuries might be because the older players weren’t rested when they should have been. Even in the Copa del Rey, Miguel San Román and Manu Sánchez were the only two youngsters to start Atlético’s loss to UE Cornellà in a team filled with experience.
This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it might be one of the legacies left behind by Simeone. Just two academy players make the list for Atlético this season in the graph above — Manu and Ricard Sánchez — and neither played more than 45 minutes in their solitary performances.
Atlético will need more than a stroke of luck to win LaLiga with Madrid and Barcelona both lurking just behind them in the title race. Simeone won’t be looking for excuses if they do lose their grip on the title, but if he does stay beyond the summer, a fresh investment in youth and a new approach to rotating his squad might be on the cards to avoid another late-season struggle to the finish line.