Diego Simeone is not the type of manager to get carried away. During Atletico Madrid’s title-winning campaign of 2013/14, his oft-repeated mantra of taking each game as it comes became a running joke in Spain. Even as the wins racked up and Atletico closed in on a historic achievement, Simeone refused to look beyond the next fixture.
It is no surprise, then, that the Atletico boss played down talk of his team’s title credentials following Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Barcelona. That result moved Atletico onto 20 points, giving them the best points-per-game ratio in the division. They remain unbeaten after eight encounters, winning six and drawing two to put them above Real Madrid and Barcelona in the early standings. Saturday’s success moved them nine points clear of Barca, who are now in the bottom half having now failed to win five of their eight contests to date.
Simeone was asked after the game whether he saw similarities between his current team and his champions of 2013/14. “No, I don’t see them,” was the typical reply. Simeone knows that there is a long way to go and he is not about to talk up his side’s chances of winning La Liga. But after Saturday’s defeat of Barcelona, that is exactly what others are doing.
The early signs are certainly positive. Atletico has long had a reputation for defensive solidity, and that has continued in the first couple of months of 2020/21. Simeone’s side has conceded just two goals so far, with Saturday’s shut-out against Barcelona their sixth clean sheet. They have also scored 18 times, a tally bettered by only Real Sociedad at the time of writing.
Simeone was not necessarily being contrary when he played down similarities between the Atletico of 2013/14 and the current crop at the Wanda Metropolitano. When Los Colchoneros last won the league, they averaged 49.1 percent possession across the campaign. That figure so far this term is 53.1 percent. Atletico is still aggressive and intense, but they have become better with their use of the ball.
Simeone has been accused of failing to get the best out of certain technical players in the past, with Thomas Lemar one such example. Yet such criticism is wide of the mark when other cases are considered.
Joao Felix and Yannick Carrasco linked up superbly on Saturday, with the latter scoring the game’s only goal on the stroke of half-time. Under Simeone, Marcos Llorente has been transformed from a holding midfielder to an attack-minded one. Koke is now back to his best after a dip in form. Antoine Griezmann has struggled to replicate his Atletico form at Barcelona.
Atletico is still recognizable as a Simeone team. The Argentine demands hard work and a collective mindset from all his players, and that is unlikely to ever change. Yet Atletico is more technical and less muscular than they once were. The 4-4-2 formation may still be in place, but Atletico is more adept at playing through the pitch. They are not quite as direct these days; indeed, the hosts put together some brilliant incisive moves against Barcelona.
Winning the title will still be a tall order. Real Madrid remain favorites with the bookmakers, with DraftKings Sportsbook offering odds of +140 on Zinedine Zidane’s side retaining their crown. Atletico is listed at +180, with Barcelona drifting to +325 after Saturday’s defeat. Simeone, as is he won’t, is not looking that far ahead.
He told reporters after the game:
The most important things we value about the growth of footballers from last season to this one is being seen. We are working better on the pitch, we are being more complicit to share what the team needs and we see it.We need everyone. Felipe, who played much more continuously last season; Renan Lodi, who will surely be important; [Geoffrey] Kondogbia enters little by little; Saul [Niguez] is finding his best form; [Angel] Correa is showing extraordinary growth, not to mention Joao Felix or [Diego] Costa’s enthusiasm when he came on.
“The group generates enthusiasm for me because I see them wanting to look for important things, game by game. Football is game by game. Sometimes we have to win and sometimes we have to lose, in the previous games [against Barca] we had always been close to winning, aside from in the Supercopa in Saudi Arabia.”
“Today we won, that does not change the plan of what is sought. I’m very happy with the team’s effort.”
This has not been an ideal start to life as Barcelona boss for Koeman. The Dutchman knew he was taking over a team in decline in the summer, and it has long been clear that the problems at the Camp Nou run deeper than the dugout. Yet Koeman will live and die by results, and three wins from eight games in La Liga represents a miserable start to a season for a club that is used to winning trophies.
Barcelona looks short of ideas right now. The failure to sign a replacement for Luis Suarez, who did not feature for Atletico against his former club after testing positive for coronavirus, was baffling. Barcelona looked blunt at the Wanda Metropolitano, and the lack of a fixed reference point through the middle is proving problematic. Griezmann played as a No.9 in the capital, but that is not his natural position.
Barcelona struggled to break Atletico down from minute one to 90. There was little in the way of creativity or progressive passing patterns, and many of their chances came from hopeful crosses into the box. This was Simeone’s first-ever victory over Barca in La Liga, and right now the two clubs are moving in opposite directions.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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