Here is a variety of soothing thoughts for Atletico Madrid fans who, without them, would probably be inconsolable wrecks, curled up in the corner of their TV room, quaking with dread about what their next brutal Colchonero experience is going to be.
First: Atleti don’t play in the Champions League until the last week of February. Frankly, if the first leg of their round-of-16 tie was next week, which it could have been, then Diego Simeone’s players would probably still be in massive shock from the four-goal humiliation they received at Camp Nou on Sunday.
Second: The fact that the initial Champions League draw was botched, forcing a redo, means that Atleti aren’t about to face Bayern Munich, their original , which would have meant we could draw a flatline through the rest of their European season. They’d be “out” already, before a ball was kicked in anger.
Third: Their rivals a fortnight on Wednesday are Manchester United, arguably the only other European behemoth that, at this stage, is as hopelessly adrift from how it should be playing as Atleti are.
Fourth: of Atleti’s next three domestic rivals, two are in LaLiga’s bottom six. Levante are hopelessly adrift, in last position, and both of those matches at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, where the power and ferocity of the Colchonero fans is as undimmed as the team’s form is limp and pathetic.
Other than those glimmers of hope, Atletico’s general vista could seem as bone-shudderingly awful as that Hans Christian Andersen fable when the arrogant, vain Emperor struts about in his birthday suit, conned by swindlers, believing himself to have “new clothes” on until a child cries out: “The Emperor is Naked!”
Now, the harsh facts:
Atleti have lost five of their last eight LaLiga matches. Two of those defeats came against Mallorca and Granada, each of whom is fighting relegation.
During their last four matches (Copa del Rey and LaLiga), the team that’s regularly been Europe’s most miserly when it came to goals conceded have picked the ball out of their own net 10 times. But this next (horrific) stat is the X-ray that most clearly reveals the ruinous mess in which Spain’s champions find themselves.
During the nine full LaLiga seasons while the most successful manager in Atleti’s history has been in charge, they have only once, at the end of a 38-match campaign, conceded more goals than they’ve conceded in just 22 matches this season.
That was at the end of Simeone’s first full term as manager, when they conceded a scandalous (yes, I’m being sarcastic) 31 goals in 38 matches. (PS: that season, they were by far Spain’s stingiest team with the next best, champions Barcelona, allowing 40 goals.)
The remaining goals-against numbers between the end of 2012-13 and today are, arguably, mythical in status. Read them and weep: only 26 conceded in winning the 2013-14 title, followed by 29, 18(!), 27, 22, 29, 27 and a mere 25 when winning the title again last year.
I remind you again: They’ve conceded 30 goals in 22 games this season!
Right now goalkeeper Jan Oblak — and this situation is by no means exclusively his fault — is leaking 1.4 goals on average per LaLiga match. It means that if things continue as they are, Atleti would have a goals-against tally reading 53 by the end of the season. It’s not far short of what you get when you add Simeone’s best three defensive seasons together.
Okay. Enough of the statistical horror show. What’s almost equally worrying is that you can easily diagnose Atleti’s problems; in fact they already know precisely what’s wrong, yet they continue in free-fall without a remedy.
Jose Gimenez is our doctor for what ails them. The 27-year-old Uruguay centre-back has only been injury or suspension-free for 13 La Liga starts this season. The revealing fact is that every match in which he’s played, until Sunday, has been a draw or a win: the 4-2 hammering at Barcelona was Atleti’s first defeat with him in the lineup. Gimenez didn’t play in Atleti’s Copa defeat, though he started in the draw at home to Porto and the win over Milan at San Siro before losing two, against Liverpool, when Atleti, each time, were down to 10 men.
Without question, Gimenez is a huge part of the solution, not a cause of the problem. (By the way: Stefan Savic is Atleti’s other “must-play” defender, but he’s only been fit enough to start 14 times in LaLiga. Again: until Sunday, he’d only lost twice this season.) Clearer still is the fact that Gimenez and Savic have only partnered each other in LaLiga 10 times this season: the Camp Nou was their first defeat of those matches.
You might think, then, that the solution is obvious: get them fit and in the same starting XI, as often as possible, beginning with this weekend at home to Getafe then against United, and most of Atleti’s problems will disappear? Wrong, according to Gimenez. And Simeone.
After Sunday’s humbling defeat, during which Atleti were 4-1 down but threatened a radical fightback once Dani Alves was sent off, Simeone said “once again, we ‘woke up’ in the second half. After Barcelona’s fourth goal we showed a different type of reaction: more intense, more aggressive, better in the individual battles. This is what we lack, this is what we must find a way to demonstrate more often.”
Damning words if a Simeone team is slow to compete, slow to be intense, or late in playing with aggressive self-belief. It’s also complete anathema to everything we’ve seen since the combative Argentinian took over in 2011. But this idea that the fire inside the bellies of Spain’s champions has dimmed, and extinguished in some, is a theme his South American central defender echoes.
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Having come back to win, from 2-0 down a home to Valencia the other week, Gimenez was fascinating to listen to. He argued: “The first half against Valencia is precisely what we are not! We lacked intensity, failed to win the ‘first ball’ and ‘second ball’ contests against the rival. That’s why we went 2-0 behind.
“The second half was what we are! It was totally the opposite: we won ‘first balls’, ‘second balls’, we got bodies into the opposition box, we pressed the game high up and sustained attacking moves, plus we defended our own box well. That’s the Atleti we want every week.
“I don’t believe in luck per se, because good luck only comes to you as a factor of how hard you work. Nothing falls into your lap in football. But still, it’s true that there are things happening in our matches which are very tough to explain, things that weren’t happening last season. And I don’t know why. This season, almost all our rivals seem more forceful, more offensive and they have all decided that they can take advantage of the tiniest opportunity we give them. Our opponents might have two efforts at goal and score one, or even both.
“But it’s neither enough nor accurate to say we are just a ‘bad’ team: that’s not true. We simply have to demonstrate that what’s going on isn’t because we don’t play good football in this team, or because we aren’t in good physical shape. It’s a mental thing. We just have to convince ourselves that we are totally capable, if everyone pulls together, of doing what we require to do.”
So even in the gloom of: being thrashed by a Barcelona side that’s been incapable of scoring four times since August; of dropping out of the automatic Champions League positions; of falling an embarrassing 17 points behind leaders Madrid and defending the title like disinterested fops, there are still glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel for Spain’s champions.
Get Antoine Griezmann back fit, make sure Savic and Gimenez start together whenever possible, rejuvenate the competitive mentality, and save discussions about whether Simeone’s era is drawing to a natural conclusion for nearer the end of this troubled, embarrassing and potentially disastrous season. However, if there aren’t big wins soon, especially against Getafe, Levante and Osasuna plus Ralf Rangnick’s deeply unpredictable United, then expect the demands for a major inquest into Simeone’s status to begin immediately.