It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. A person’s refusal to accept that without change there can be no progress. Watching Atlético Madrid this season, it’s clear they need change but simply refuse to accept it. And increasingly concerning results are proof of that fact.
A 1-1 draw at home to Azerbaijani side and Champions League group stage debutants Qarabag on Tuesday has left the two-time Champions League finalists’ chances of reaching the last 16 in tatters. With just three points from four games and four points behind second-placed Chelsea, it appears that Los Rojiblancos will be heading for Europa League football in the New Year, barring a drastic turnaround.
However, their issues in Europe’s premier club competition are a microcosm of a bigger problem. A problem which this team has faced ever since that fateful night in Milan when, for the second time in three seasons, Atlético had their hearts broken by arch-rivals Real Madrid in the 2016 Champions League final. They were shut out of what would have been the club’s greatest achievement at the death yet again. More importantly, their window of opportunity to become a European superpower was shut in their faces. A harsh reality Diego Simeone and his troops had little choice but to accept.
It seemed like Simeone accepted it. He shortened his contract by two years that summer, aiming to give it another go to finally grab the one trophy that’s eluded his beloved club. But after being defeated by Madrid for the fourth season running in the Champions League’s latter stages, plus finishing a distant third in La Liga, Simeone had a change of heart. With Atléti facing a summer transfer ban and the club moving into the Wanda Metropolitano, Simeone added back the two years to his deal. No changes to his approach in addition to the changes they couldn’t make in personnel until January, the club legend seemed convinced he could return his club to their former glories.
Predictably, given their transfer restrictions and Simeone’s refusal to play a more up-tempo style despite the attacking potential at his disposal, Atlético look to be going through the motions. They have given every bit of blood, sweat and tears the last four years through concentration, hard work, as well as strong counter-attacking principles and making many of their set pieces count. Since the beginning of last season, they’ve looked increasingly devoid of ideas in attack and having more than usual defensive lapses at key moments.
In this campaign, Atlético has scored just 15 goals in 10 league games – 10 in nine games if you take out the five they put past Las Palmas in August – in addition to only two strikes in four Champions League games. Too many games this season, the team has looked toothless, either in creating clear-cut chances or burying those chances when presented. Antoine Griezmann, who looked like a world beater throughout much of 2016, has looked ordinary this season, with just two goals and two assists so far, hardly influencing games. Had it not been for the ban, Griezmann may very well be leading the line at Manchester United instead of Romelu Lukaku right now after openly flirting with the idea in the summer. Fernando Torres is finally showing his age, Nicolás Gaitán has become a bit part player, Kevin Gameiro has not been fit and Luciano Vietto looks a terrible fit under the guidance of his fellow countryman. Save for the gradual improvement of Ángel Correa, Thomas Partey and Yannick Carrasco, there’s not much to get excited about.