Perfecting Atleti’s balancing act

Are international breaks a help or a hindrance? Depending on which manager you listen to, they can be viewed either as a blessing in disguise or a needless, disruptive drain on valuable resources.

Given the way Diego Simeone´s Atletico Madrid side have started the season, the Argentine could be forgiven for cursing the timing of the UEFA calendar. Indeed, Los Colchoneros’ achievements so far this term under El Cholo have been remarkable.

A 100 per cent record in La Liga and the Champions League means Atleti are one of the in-form sides on the continent right now. So while many will offer patronising plaudits in response to their unlikely rise, Simeone and his coaching staff are faced with devising a strategy to keep Atletico competitive amongst Europe’s elite.

With that in mind, Simeone’s squad rotation policy in the weeks ahead will be crucial. Last Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Celta Vigo marked the end of an incredible eight days for Los Rojiblancos. First there was the 1-0 derby win at the Bernabeu. That was followed by a come-from-behind victory in Porto. Given the difficulty of those two fixtures, it is understandable that Simeone’s charges came unstuck in the last half hour against Celta.

The first half against the Galicians saw Atleti dominate possession and, just after half-time, they established a two-goal lead, with Diego Costa trampling his way through the Celta defence.  However, from the moment Simeone replaced David Villa with Oliver Torres, Atletico’s problems became glaringly obvious.

Deprived of the solid shape that has served them so well this campaign, Atleti struggled badly. Oliver’s lack of presence in midfield allowed Celta a foothold, while Atleti were repeatedly exposed down the right hand side. This wasn’t a tactical aberration on Simeone’s behalf, however. His players simply could not cover the ground, they were burnt out. In the end, they just managed to cling on.

While few could argue with Simeone’s selection decisions to date, Sunday’s game proffered harbingers of what may lie ahead if the manager fails to integrate some of the fringe players in his squad.

Seven members of the squad have played in every League game so far, while a further three have played in all but one. In fact, of Simeone’s first choice side, only the Mario Suarez/Tiago role appears to be up for grabs. Yet the injuries sustained to the captain, Gabi, and to striker David Villa, indicate that such a selection policy may already be starting to take its toll.

The Coach clearly has an identified XI that he knows and trusts to implement strategy to the letter. However, Sunday´s game would have been an ideal opportunity to try out the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Josuha Guilavogui.

Simeone may point to an exemplary set of results in defence of his policy, yet Week 8 will have given him plenty to think about. The international break will offer a welcome rest for some of his players, and will provide the Argentine with a chance to reflect on how best to balance the demands on his players going forward. A blessing after all perhaps?