Atletico Madrid may well win La Liga this season – but there’s still reason to believe that Diego Simeone’s side are not what they once were
Enter the bad guys. Perhaps they are often introduced in the third scene and La Liga has navigated its way through two weekends without the anti-heroes arriving. But Atletico Madrid begin their campaign against Granada on Sunday and the sense of malevolence could be ramped up. If Diego Simeone and Diego Costa are joined by Luis Suarez, they could have the greatest collection of pantomime villains in footballing history.
When the season ends, Atletico may yet have a second La Liga title of Simeone’s transformative reign. That theory rests more on the feeling that Barcelona and Real Madrid are on the way down, which could be compounded with chaos and infighting at the Nou Camp but a man as predatory as Simeone could capitalise.
And yet it is tempting to wonder if Simeone, too, is in decline.
Not dramatically; not with Jose Mourinho-style implosions. Simeone’s peak arguably came between his appointment in December 2011 and 2017, a period that featured his against-the-odds La Liga triumph, the two highest points totals in their history, two Champions League finals, a Europa League and a Copa del Rey.
The subsequent three seasons have included a second Europa League, but only because Atletico exited the Champions League at an embarrassingly early stage. For four seasons, it was only the Cristiano Ronaldo-powered Real who knocked Atletico out of the Champions League. Then they were joined by Roma and Chelsea, in a group stage, then Juventus and Leipzig. The Bundesliga side’s ability to operate in one formation with the ball and another without confounded Atletico; they looked outdated as Simeone was outwitted by a younger man, in Julian Nagelsmann. Perhaps he is no longer at the forefront of thinking.
Certainly he was never one of the great attacking managers, but he never needed to be. But last year brought Atletico’s lowest points and goal tallies in any of his full campaigns in La Liga. At some stage, achievement becomes underachievement.
Atletico got 51 league goals in 2019/20, and they have not scored 60 since 2016/17. It suggests a squad with Costa, Alvaro Morata and Joao Felix, not to mention supposedly creative players like Thomas Lemar, Saul Niguez, Angel Correa, Koke and Yannick Carrasco, are less than the sum of their parts; in the opposition’s half, anyway.
And perhaps the focus on the bad guys can obscure the sense Atletico are guilty of bad buys. They were once Europe’s best budget team, specialists in getting value for money. Since 2017, they have arguably spent over £500 million to regress. In part that has been financed by sales – Antoine Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez and Rodri in particular – but they have overpaid for Felix, Costa, Morata and Lemar. Felix has time to come good, but a £113 million arrival only scored nine times last season. Costa has mustered a mere five goals in each of the last two campaigns, and has far less resale value after his £59 million return. Morata could be on his way after a solitary season; Lemar came for £63 million and got no goals from midfield last year, partly because he was often on the bench.
Simeone, the manager who specialised in getting more from his players than previous managers had, has got less from them; less, indeed, than he did himself in Costa’s first spell in the Spanish capital. Perhaps it points to the difficulties of building a second great team or a lack of attacking ideas.
Arguably a different approach could make him a man out of time. While some move away from the No.9, Simeone accumulates more of them, and yet Atletico were the lowest scorers in the top six of any of Europe’s four major leagues.
The counter-argument is that only Real conceded fewer goals. Simeone is the best defensive manager of the last decade; no one has drilled a back four, or indeed two banks of four, with such relentless hunger to protect their penalty box and their goal. Atletico conceded 31 goals in La Liga in 2012/13, and they have not let in 30 since. Those skills remain intact but shorn of their attacking edge and with their aura of invincibility in Europe against any team other their neighbours diminished by defeats, perhaps Atletico – and Simeone – are not the force they were.