Atlético Madrid 10 years ago were a lot like Diego Simeone: a team full of players of character, like El Cholo himself when he was patrolling the midfield, and like he is now on the touchline. There wasn’t an abundance of artists, in fact it could almost be said there was only one when Atleti won the Liga title in 2013-14 in Camp Nou and reached the final of the Champions League, Arda Turan. The rest were front line players, who endured the physical and tactical demands of their manager and who never, ever gave an inch. The result was a steel-edged and efficient style of football, if not the most aesthetic. Games were won and gifts were not given. Those were the years of Diego Godín scoring a header and everyone dropping back to defend, Atleti’s scorecard reading like binary code: 1-0, 0-0, 0-1, 1-1.
It wasn’t pretty but it worked. With time of course, there was a desire for something else and within the club itself there was a debate as to whether the style should be refined a little once Atleti had established themselves at the more sophisticated end of the European ladder, the latter stages of the Champions League. Money wasn’t a problem, more talented players started to arrive, and Atleti started to play 10-on-10. Antoine Griezmann, as an example, was a wonderful signing. He adapted to Simeone’s demands without losing his brilliance, even if in the end he capitulated and headed to Barça. At the other extreme is João Félix, a Ferrari who still occasionally looks as though he has accidentally signed up for a demolition derby.
This season there has been a notable decline, immediately after Atleti won another league title and with an improved squad. People inside the club tell me the reasons are varied: slaked thirst in an environment where, unlike Real Madrid and Barcelona, the obsession for trophies is not constant; a lack of full backs, which has resulted in Marcos Llorente and, occasionally, Yannick Carrasco being too far from the opposition area; a lot of doubts up front, whether to play Luis Suárez or Matheus Cunha, or Féliz, Griezmann or Ángel Correa; a slump in form from Jan Oblak, for so many years the side’s infallible airbag. Atlético have lost confidence in how they are playing and El Cholo has no explanations for what is happening. His side no longer resemble him.