As the anthem which booming from the Wanda Metropolitano speakers began to fade, allowing the joyous locals to take over, the exhausted but jubilant Atletico players stood before the adorning Fondo Sur, arm in arm, having come from two goals down to go five points clear of Barcelona – it felt significant.
Before kickoff, everyone was in their seats that little bit earlier and the anthem sung with that little bit more gusto; it was as if everyone in the stadium was aware that the last two times Atlético won their opening three games of the league season, they went on to become champions on both occasions. Moreover, we all knew that a win would also have afforded a sizeable early lead going into the first international break of the season, having at last overcome Leganés at Butarque, for the first time in four visits, the week previous.
However, as so often is the way in sport, where there is optimism and hope, there is vulnerability, and within 20 minutes Atletico had been stung, twice, by a feisty Eibar who had come to press Atletico high; a formula which had seen them avoid defeat in their previous two visits to the new home of the Colchoneros. It was only the sixth time in 40 league games in the Wanda Metropolitano that Simeone’s men had conceded more than one goal and they had done so inside the first quarter of the game. Just like that, Atleti bore all the signs of what they really are right now: a team in transition. A wave of uncertainty and anxiety spread right across the team and into the stands as the seconds ticked away.
Figuring things out themselves
On a hot and humid evening in Madrid, the penny seemed to finally drop – there was no longer a Godin to pop up with a towering header, or a Felipe Luis to nutmeg the opposition defender and slide across to an open striker, or an Antoine Griezmann to conjure up a moment of magic out of nothing. The new Atletico were going to have to figure this out by themselves.
Sometimes, like on Sunday evening, when the collective is disjointed and seemingly unable to find the key to unlock the opposition, it is necessary to batter down the door, and that is exactly what Diego Costa did on his return to La Liga action for the first time since April. Through on goal, the man from Lagarto was unable to get clear of the accompanying defender, so he decided to shoulder him into next week before sliding across for João Felix to slot into an empty net. It was a peak Costa goal and the jolt of life Simeone’s charges badly needed. Costa’s contribution was to lay the foundation for a memorable comeback akin to that of Diego Godin’s now infamous ‘Gol del cojo’ against Athletic Bilbao last November. It won’t be the last time this season, but Simeone and Atletico had to assess and adjust in order to deal with the challenge posed in front of them. This is going to be a learning curve, not only for this new collection of players, but also for the Argentine coach himself as he adapts to a new set of strengths and weaknesses in his squad. In the end, Atletico did manage to find a way past Marko Dmitrovic twice more thanks to a few moments of real quality and sheer doggedness – they figured out a way.
New Talent, New Hope
Last season, Atlético were really thrown together: they were plagued by injuries all season; they were forced to play players like Saúl out of position; they carried a misfiring Diego Costa in attack and, yet, they still finished second. This summer they have addressed key areas of weakness and have added much-needed youth and energy into what was becoming an increasingly aging, stale squad. In Renan Lodi (lauded by the departing Felipe Luis as the best full-back by a distance in the Brazilian Serie A) and Kieran Tripper, Atletico now have two attacking full-backs, something which has always been of vital importance to Diego Simeone’s narrow, compact system.
Atlético had almost virtually zero going forward from wide areas in the campaign gone by and this renewed dimension has really re-energised an attack which was too slow and predictable to break down teams who sat back with numbers behind the ball. The introduction of Trippier should see a sharp increase in set-piece goals, one of Atletico’s trademarks of the last 7-8 years. Fun fact: in the 2013/14 title-winning season Atletico scored 18 (!) headed goals, and eight in the final nine games of the title run-in.
The likes of João Felix, Renan Lodi, Marcos Llorente are indeed unproven in terms of a 3-5 year body of work but these signings have Atleti fans excited again – they have bought totally into this new team and morale is extremely high right now in Madrid among those who wear red and white.
It was always highly unlikely that Los Rojiblancos would be title contenders if it was a straight shootout with all three contenders winning week in, week out. Realistically, if Atletico are to be in with a shout of challenging for the league, it would have to be one of those years where more points are dropped than usual. Essentially, it needs to become a dogfight which, thus far, is what we are seeing.
On the other side of town, Zinedine Zidane’s squad still lacks that player who can link defence and attack while covering the necessary ground. The team lacks an identity and feels compartmentalised, rather than a fluid unit: the defence continues to deteriorate (Real Madrid have kept consecutive clean sheets once in 2019); Kroos and Modric continue to shadows as opponents counter-attack, and the attack is essentially left to its own devices, to create magic out of nothing. It is totally disjointed and over a league season you get found out pretty quickly. In the last five seasons Madrid have scored a total of 63 (2018/19), 94, 106, 110 and 118 goals respectively. The gaping Ronaldo-shaped hole has yet to be filled and there are simply not enough goals coming from midfield and wide forwards to mount a serious title challenge if Madrid continue to offer such little resistance in defence.
At this moment in time, all is clearly not well at Barcelona either. After an entire summer of mind-numbing Neymar drama which saw Josep Maria Bartomeu try to include the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Ousmane Dembélé in any potential deal, the only thing that Barca are now left with is a handful of pissed-off players in the dressing room.
The ghosts of last season’s failures on the biggest nights in cup competitions against teams of a certain style have manifested themselves once again this season during visits to San Mamés and El Sadar, and the pressure continues to mount on Ernesto Valverde, who has the look of a man who has stayed on one season too many. It remains to be seen how Valverde will set out his team when Messi and Dembélé return, and there have been questions asked about the selection and formation in midfield, which looks a real area of concern in the short-term.
Perhaps questions could also be raised over Barca’s hunger. Having won eight of the last 11 league titles, you just wonder about their motivation and hunger to keep pulling the tough games out of the fire year after year, as the legs of key players grow wearier.
The fire burns as strong as ever
In recent months, both Zidane and Valverde have faced a daily barrage of questions about the same shortlist of topics (Neymar, Pogba, Bale, Rakitic, Dembélé etc) and, coupled with a couple of bad results, the strains are starting to show. However, over at the Wanda Metropolitano, the man in black – the longest serving manager in one of the most pressurised leagues in world football – continues to live every break of the ball as if it was his first game as coach. It is truly astonishing to see such energy, commitment and passion day after day, year after year, in the wake of historic success and a fair amount of heartbreak. Atlético have one thing which neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid possess right now: stability.
While institutional unease continues to linger over Real Madrid in terms of Zidane and the failure to bring in players that he wanted, and at Barcelona where a huge proportion of Culés are strongly against their coach and club president, Atletico Madrid are united from top to bottom. Despite the huge player turnover, Atletico have a defined system and culture in terms of how it aims to win games of football. It may not be pretty but it is effective, and despite the huge player turnover this summer, Atletico have hit the ground running thanks to this stability and planning, which saw them complete their transfer activity in the opening weeks of the window in order to give the new arrivals maximum time to bed in. With Diego Simeone, the little details are huge.
Simeone has tinkered with a few different systems so far this season, but it’s all constructed upon one idea: the team. Fans will inevitably quibble about his system after a disappointing result on the road but, when all those around and in disarray, there is merit in stability and predictability.
On the evidence of the 3-2 win over Eibar, one could argue that Alvaro Morata is, right now, Atletico Madrid’s most important player. Twice discarded by Real Madrid, Morata has played with a determination and desire that bears all the signs of a player who is ready to prove himself as a reliable, consistent striker once and for all at Atletico Madrid, where he first began as a youth thanks to his grandfather’s influence.
Morata is now essential to how Atletico function: his movement and hold-up play allows the likes of João Felix, Saúl and Lemar to join the attack, and his absence was sorely felt against Eibar as Atletico struggled to gain any sort of territorial dominance. Without that presence, there is more pressure to create from deep which makes Atletico’s attacks slow, laborious and easy to defend against.
Morata will be key to any title challenge.
Getting off to a fast start before the return of Lionel Messi was always going to be vital and that is exactly what Simeone’s men have done. We have only played three games of the new season but five points is hugely important, especially ahead of the upcoming visit to Anoeta and the small matter of the Madrid Derby.
Diario AS’ Alfredo Relaño wrote in his piece this week that Atletico’s comeback “shows that the team has a strong spirit and unity as they continue to collect victories while the failures of Madrid and Barcelona gives them wings.” The win over Eibar feels significant, not just in terms of points, but also psychologically as they found a way to rescue a win without the leaders of yesteryear on the field.
Right now, all Atletico and Cholo can keep doing is following the famous old mantra of Luis Aragaonés: “Win, Win and Win again.” In the meantime, why shouldn’t their fans be allowed to dream about the days in May? That’s what sport is all about, the moments of hope.
Brendy Boyle is an Irish journalist living and working in Madrid. A season ticket holder at Atletico Madrid and Union Adarve, he covers all things football in the Spanish capital, from Estadio Butarque to the Wanda Metropolitano.