It has only been two games, so we need to keep our composure, maintain perspective and not get carried away.
But Renan Lodi might just be the best left wing-back of our generation.
With every half-decent performance, we try to put Atlético Madrid’s troubles to bed, square them away and put them in a box. It’s as much to dispel our own cognitive dissonance as it is to convince others that Atlético are actually good.
We reach desperately for something to better inform us of what has gone wrong, and we have been reaching for that something since the start of the season. It was Luis Suárez for a while, of course. Then Koke was burdened with the demise of the club. Felipe took his brunt of criticism and Jan Oblak has spent a few weeks at the top of the culprit list. You’re not really an Atlético player unless you have been apportioned your share of the blame for this season.
The reality was, and still might be, that it is the tactics, the platform, that was exposing the players as they spiraled into a blur of red and white mistakes. It didn’t matter the venue, or the competition: an Atlético player would eventually take the baton as chief culprit.
But in the past two games, it feels like something has changed. A fresh perspective, a renewed commitment, a coherent plan has emerged.
Diego Simeone continues to play with a 4-4-2. But with Marcos Llorente and Renan Lodi on the wings plus Geoffrey Kondogbia and Héctor Herrera in the middle, Atlético look like a new team.
João Félix is also finding his role, and Ángel Correa continues to blind us with flashes of technical and creative wizardry in and around the box while working hard in between those moments of magic.
Šime Vrsaljko and Reinildo Mandava play as the right- and left-back respectively as Llorente and Lodi play as a hybrid midfield/full-back/wing-backs. They put pressure on ball carriers, close passing options and attack with gusto. They might be nominally midfielders on the right and left but are much more than just that.
Koke played the role of right midfielder in earlier iterations of Simeone’s 4-4-2 with Juanfran bombing up the wing to create and provide width. Koke tucked in when he needed to fortify the middle. Atlético haven’t had full-backs like Juanfran or Filipe Luís since, well, Kieran Trippier and Lucas Hernández. It takes a very specific player to be able to create from full-back without ceding ground defensively.
Nobody Simeone and Andrea Berta brought in could fill the role.
So Simeone has decided to double up on the left wing with two left-backs, one attacking and one with a more combative spirit. Reinildo was signed in the January transfer window and almost immediately was placed in the starting 11, putting Lodi, a wing-back who had been masquerading as a full-back, in a position where he could be more effective.
The Brazilian has since created three goals in two games.
Simeone was thinking too linearly in terms of trying to build a team. He was trying to replace Filipe and Lucas with a single player. He gave up on that when shifting to a back three as Mario Hermoso and Yannick Carrasco’s double act tried to solve the problem.
That opened up a pandora’s box of problems elsewhere. And we found ourselves back at square one.
Then again, we thought the same about the three-man defence as teams adjusted and found holes in Simeone’s plan. For now, at least, Atlético might be able to finish out the season (and possibly Simeone’s tenure as manager) making sense.
For all the tinkering throughout the season, Cholo has stumbled on something that allows his players to flourish in positions to which they are suited. Like The Bed of Procrustes, Simeone was chopping and changing his players to fit roles they didn’t fit.
Rodrigo De Paul as a right midfielder and Llorente at full-back are two examples. The idea was that if they could just bring the skills they possess to that position, then it would work. But that’s not how it works. Llorente at full-back can not do the same things as Llorente the midfielder. The entire context is different.
It was always about finding the right formula given the players available. Simeone showed his pragmatic side by changing formations in an effort to make the formula add up. Nothing did, until we saw Atlético compete and win the battle against Manchester United in the Champions League despite the result. He repeated that exact same team against Celta Vigo and the performance was even better.
Atlético have questions to answer in the summer but for now, Simeone’s system is waking up his sleeping squad, and players just like Lodi seem liberated in positions where they can flourish.