With the news over the weekend regarding Fernando Torres positive, Atletico Madrid’s thoughts can now return to the pitch ahead of this weekend’s visit of Valencia.
Unfortunately for the Vicente Calderon faithful, the La Liga table does not make pretty reading. The defeat to Barcelona and the draw in Galicia mean they currently sit outside the top four and trail Real Sociedad in the fourth and final Champions League place by two points.
Before last weekend’s game with Barca, Diego Simeone said that the side’s objective was a third-placed finish, however even that appears a tall order. Sevilla are flying alongside Real Madrid and the Catalans at the top, meaning Atleti’s most realistic hopes of Champions League football next season come in the form of winning a playoff (unless they win it this season).
“Losing the final of the Champions League on penalties last season, coming into this year, was difficult,” Simeone said this week.
“We’ve had injuries, difficulties in gaining consistency. Because of this, for me, this season is the best at the club. If we achieve our objectives with these difficulties it will be tremendous. It would be great to finish this season positively.”
This is, of course, lip service from Simeone. He will know that this league campaign has not been good enough, especially as the fundamental defensive solidity that has underpinned his time at the club has been found wanting.
In the Argentine’s first full season in charge — 2012-13 — they shipped 31 goals in the league and had the meanest defence in Spain. Ditto in 2013-14 when they won the title, their miserly 26 goals against was the fewest conceded by any La Liga outfit. A year later it was 29, while last season it was an incredible 18 goals against in 38 games.
While it would be unreasonable to expect the backline to be equally as stingy this time round, they have conceded 22 in 25 league games — more than Barcelona and Villarreal. Indeed, they are on course to concede the most goals they ever have under the 46-year-old.
Amazingly, for Atleti, they have not kept a clean sheet since Feb. 4’s 2-0 victory over lowly Leganes. Tellingly, they have shipped eight in their last five games in all competitions, with uncharacteristically sloppy defending costing three points last time out and ensuring Bayer Leverkusen somehow still remain in with a puncher’s chance of going through their Champions League round of 16 tie.
So what has happened? On the face of it, there are two standout problems.
The first is unfortunate and due to circumstance. Augusto Fernandez’s ACL injury and Tiago’s fitness issues means Atletico are having to play without a natural defensive midfielder for the first time in Simeone’s reign.
Koke has slotted in well there, however he is more of a natural replacement for Gabi, as opposed to a complementary presence alongside him. Atleti will have to continue for the rest of the season as they are, however the sooner Tiago can return, the better — especially for forthcoming big European matches should they progress as expected.
Likewise Jan Oblak’s shoulder injury also deprived the side of one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. However Miguel Moya did a good job deputising. Instead, it is the men directly in front of the goalkeeper that have been a problem and this is something of Simeone’s own doing.
Towards the end of last season, Stefan Savic usurped Jose Gimenez in the pecking order and was parachuted in to partner Diego Godin at the back.
It worked for a while, however as this season has progressed the numbers speak for themselves.
The Montenegrin is the only consistently new part of what was such a watertight backline last year. In recent months he has looked ropey and — more importantly — his form has had a negative impact on the usually unflappable Godin.
Simeone has persisted, however Savic was taken out for his own good against Deportivo. While Gimenez looked understandably rusty in his place, the 22-year-old must now be given an extended run in the side — just as Savic was afforded — to prove he can help Atleti rediscover their defensive solidity from last season.
If he can help the defence can rediscover its mean side, then Atletico should sail towards the top four and the latter stages of the Champions League. However, if that magic cannot be restored or Simeone chooses not to do so, then Los Colchoneros face an almighty struggle over the coming months. It all has to start with this weekend.