Atletico Madrid have to have a sense of what might have been niggling them.
At the start of the season, they opened with a Super Cup triumph – after beating Marseille in the Europa League final in May – against Real Madrid, finally beating their city rivals on the continent.
Things looked bright for Los Colcheronos, Real Madrid were in transition after losing their manager and their talisman, Barcelona were still far from convincing, while they themselves had a seemingly fruitful summer transfer window, the signings of Rodrigo, Thomas Lemar, Nikola Kalinic, and Gelson Martins among others highlighted quality and squad depth.
Things never go according to plan. Dreams never fashion themselves in the mould and path we fantasise them to. But Atletico will no doubt feel a sense of angst over how their season has gone. With two months of the season left, Diego Simeone’s side are already done for the campaign. Out of the Champions League – after that collapse in Turin – out of the Spanish top flight title race (10 points behind leaders Barcelona with 10 games left) and eliminated from the Spanish Cup as well.
Atletico are by no means putting this down as a disastrous season, and they shouldn’t. They are set for a second top-two finish in succession, and a seventh consecutive top-three spot, and, however their outlay in the summer, are still operating on a financial level that’s way behind Real Madrid and Barcelona. Keeping up with those gigantic duo is quite a task, and Atleti have proved capable of doing that.
But the feeling that just keeping up isn’t enough is surely there, especially how this season has gone.
Atletico had a healthy deficit from the first leg of their Champions League knockout tie against Juventus, only to get knocked out. In the league, they lost just one game between August and the end of January, but draws did for them, and then the defeats started to increase, three in two months, basically a whipping by their standards.
Their last game was a 2-0 defeat at Athletic Bilbao, in which skipper Diego Godin pointed out that the biggest issue was that the side didn’t look like Atletico. But that’s part of the problem.
In that loss at Juventus in the Champions League, Atletico didn’t muster one shot on target, rather sit back, too deep even for them, and invited Juve to come at them, an act of living dangerously that had fatal consequences. Their Champions League campaign met its sword not just because of what they faced in their goal, but that they were of little threat at the other end as well.
This also translates to the league. No side have conceded less than Atleti’s tally of 19, but they’ve only scored 39 times, only three more than 18th-placed Celta Vigo (even though only three sides have scored more). In comparison, Barcelona have 73, almost double their number. More often than not Atletico have gone one up and offered – even offering little before they even scored – the deluxe Atletico treatment. It works quite well and quite a lot, but draws in some of those games (a 1-1 stalemate at Leganes in October a case in point) have cost them.
Now Simeone and his side probably face a conundrum, do they stick or twist. Do they become more expansive and front-footing, granted they began the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons in that manner, but reverted to the norm when it didn’t seem to be working.
Or they do continue their usual mode, which usually does the job, but has ultimately cost them this season?
With the top two almost dead-cert to strengthen next summer, and Atleti themselves likely to lose players, Diego Godin, Filipe Luis and Juanfran are likely to leave, while Lucas Hernandez is already confirmed to join Bayern Munich at the end of the season, this is a matter worth spending time thinking about. Well, they apparently have 10 dead (-ish) rubber games between now and May to sit down and decipher.