If you tuned in to the last half hour of Atlético Madrid versus Rayo Vallecano on Saturday night, you would have seen Diego Simeone’s side holding on desperately to a one-goal lead. They were not just bunkered down and holding on against anyone. They were holding on against a team who haven’t won a game in LaLiga in 2022 and are now mired in a relegation battle.
Atlético have now catapulted themselves into LaLiga’s top four, having spent most of the season on the outside looking in. They also find themselves in the Champions League quarter-finals on the back of a winning streak that has people reminiscing about early-era Cholismo.
Is this the real Atlético, harking back to previous Simeone-era sides where 1-0 victories was all the rage? Or is this a not-so-cheap replica?
“It’s about streaks,” Koke said after last week’s win over Manchester United in the Champions League. The emotion of that night was captured in an iconic image of Simeone sprinting down the Old Trafford tunnel as he was pelted with missiles. But somewhere in the back of everyone’s mind was the sobering fact that Manchester United never landed a punch.
What we try to determine is whether Atlético are showing their defensive credentials once more or are currently relying on momentum, and a more favorable streak of luck. The stats suggest it’s the latter.
Atlético are unbeaten since the now-infamous loss to Levante over a month ago, the lowest point of Cholo’s 10 years in charge. Along with knocking United out of the Champions League, they have also beaten Osasuna, Celta Vigo, Betis, Cádiz and Rayo Vallecano to plant themselves in the top four.
The last five games have not been “vintage Atlético” unless this whole season has been vintage Atlético: a run of streaks, both good and bad. If momentum is a strategy, then Simeone has it at the center of his philosophy. Atlético’s numbers are no better than earlier in the season, and worse in most cases. It’s a small sample size, but they’re not creating as much as they were earlier in the season. They’re also inviting, or allowing, more pressure than earlier in the campaign.
Since the Osasuna game, Simeone has not changed his formation. He is playing with Marcos Llorente as a right-back, but Llorente has the license to push forward into dangerous positions. Rodrigo de Paul has also played Koke’s previous role of shuttling right midfielder — from right back to the center and repeat until your legs seize up. That game at El Sadar was also the last game that Luis Suárez started for Atlético.
This formation and these tactics make sense. Parking the bus with half an hour to go against a team Atlético are much better than doesn’t. It not only doesn’t make sense, but it often has the opposite intended effect.
But Cholismo is grit. And you don’t get to show your grit when you’re constantly on the front foot, searching for goals. Cholismo is suffering, not adventure.
Cholismo’s only redeeming quality is that it ensures success. Once those victories stop coming, expect criticism to ramp up again to a fever pitch.
Simeone tried to change Atlético’s style radically earlier in the season, tinkering with the very essence of what made him the manager he is. But he knows now the time for experimentation is over. It’s a sprint to the end of the season, and Atlético need to keep their necks out in front of their rivals to bring another successful season to the Wanda Metropolitano.
Aesthetics be damned, this really is just about results. This is the football Simeone understands best.
The debate over Atlético’s credentials in Europe is a different conversation. Atlético fans watched in horror as Real Madrid won three Champions Leagues in a row under Zinedine Zidane despite being second- and even third-best in Spain at the time. The best explanation we could come up with was that Zidane had a flower up his arse. Predicting the Champions League is like chasing a chimera.
Winning in Europe requires something very different: a blend of luck, good players and the ability to play singular matches. Seeing the team perform weekly, as Atlético do in LaLiga, is probably a better underlying assumption of how good a team is.
And Atlético aren’t convincing, either statistically or on the eye, with the game against Rayo as the most recent evidence.
But just last season, Atlético won six of their last eight games to seal the league title despite only winning three of nine before that. This is possibly the result of always keeping games close — sometimes you end up on the wrong side of those 1-0 games.
What will encourage Simeone is that his best players are now playing consistent minutes and performing better. João Félix is special, and special players do things that change games. He might not have scored in every game during this recent run of form, but his presence and his rising confidence conditions that form.
Antoine Griezmann is a player who suits Félix perfectly, and de Paul is starting to show why Simeone wanted him last summer. Also, the signing of Reinildo Mandava might have turned the season around in that it gives Simeone a solid, if a little wild, option at left-back.
Maybe this is exactly what Cholismo is. It’s about streaks, after all. Simeone has brought a level of consistency to Atlético in recent weeks that might hold until the end of this season.
And once Cholo gets some momentum going, you would be silly to bet against him, inexplicable as it is.