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Atletico’s Nightmare Season Continues

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Atletico’s Nightmare Season Continues

As recently as last June, Atletico Madrid was celebrating a La Liga title and lauding once again the abilities of coach Diego Simeone who had once again broken up the Real Madrid-Barcelona dominance to guide Atletico to their second league title in seven years.

Eight months on, and things look very different for Atletico. A glance at any of the football betting apps will show the reigning champions are available at huge odds to retain their title, but no one will be betting on Simeone’s men this time around.

As February draws to a close, they are fifth in the table, behind the likes of Real Betis and Sevilla, and a huge 15 points behind the first-placed team, their city rivals Real Madrid. Although they are still in the Champions League, they were knocked out in the second round of the Copa del Rey and missed out on another opportunity for silverware, losing to Athletico Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup.

Their decline is all the more remarkable when you consider their solid start to the season. Up to the end of November, they had lost only once in the league, and although they were drawing too many games, they were still second in the table and in contention.

Their decline began with a 1-2 home defeat to lowly Mallorca on December 4. They then lost three consecutive games, including defeats against Real Madrid and Sevilla, to go into the winter break in fifth place. Fans hoped that the time off would enable the players and Simeone to rectify their problems, but 2022 has brought no respite. Victories have been followed immediately with defeats, and they face a tough challenge to get back into the top four.

So what has gone wrong with the champions? Simeone’s battlers have become known around Europe for their solid defensive approach and ability to close out almost any opponent. Yet 2021/22 Atletico is not the same beast as the team that won La Liga back in 2014.

This is not a plucky squad punching above its weight anymore. The squad is packed with offensive talent, rivaling any other big team in Europe. Luis Suarez, Joao Felix, Antoine Griezmann, and Yannick Carrasco head a top-heavy collection of stars that cannot in any sense be regarded as a bunch of underdogs.

At the same time, the much-vaunted defense has been weakened steadily through declining form and personnel changes. The most recent of these was the loss of Kieran Trippier to Newcastle during the January transfer window, but the team has also lost key characters such as Gabi and Diego Godin in the last few seasons; along with those iconic stars, they’ve lost some of their identity.

In fact, much of their problems as a club and a team can be filed under the heading of “identity crisis.” They are reigning Spanish champions, a major force in European football, who play their home games at the imposing Wanda Metropolitano, yet their success was largely delivered by a team of battlers sprinkled with one or two attacking talents.

That identity crisis seems to have affected no one more badly than Simeone himself. Although the team was still hard to beat in the first half of the season, he regularly changed line-ups and tactics as though he was suddenly unsure of what sort of team he was managing. At the same time, their solid defensive philosophy devolved into something more passive, a tendency that was recently characterized by defender Stefan Savic,  who said that they seem to wait until they are losing before they start to play.

Are they a resolute defensive side that goes into every season as underdogs, or are they one of the giants of European football? Should they play a more expansive game or double down on what has largely brought them success? These questions don’t currently seem to have answers, but Simeone and his coaching staff will have to find them quickly to end the current Atletico malaise.