Atletico Madrid have only won six games out of 16 this season
Guillem Balague examines the issues facing Atletico Madrid after their stuttering start to the season.
Real Madrid’s struggles may have dominated the headlines recently but it has been an even more difficult start to the campaign for their neighbours Atletico. Diego Simeone’s side, such a formidable force at home and in Europe over the last few years, have only won two of their last nine games and only six out of 16 overall.
They are eight points off the top in La Liga and their hopes of reaching the Champions League knockout stages are hanging by a thread. And while it might be tempting to put their troubles down to their move from the Vicente Calderon to the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, adjusting to their new home is not the only issue.
In fact, most of Atletico’s problems stem from their transfer ban imposed on them by FIFA for breaking laws regarding signing young players. While their rivals have been able to field reinforcements this season, Atletico have not been so lucky. They have agreed deals for Diego Costa and Vitolo, but the new recruits are not allowed to play for Atletico until January.
Instead, Simeone has been left with pretty much the same squad as last season. He has been unable to strengthen key positions, and veterans Diego Godin, Juanfran and Gabi are all struggling to reach their previous levels.
The lack of signings has been even more costly up front. Antoine Griezmann has been uncharacteristically off-form, scoring just three goals in 13 appearances so far. Against Deportivo on Saturday, Simeone made the controversial decision to substitute him when Atletico needed a goal. It showed he is not the man to win them games right now.
Atletico’s lack of firepower has been glaringly apparent in the Champions League, where they have attempted 78 shots but only scored two goals. Their shot conversion rate of 2.6 per cent is one of the worst in the competition, and their inability to kill off Qarabag over two games has now left them facing an early exit.
The problems are evident in La Liga, too, where Atletico are struggling to create chances as well as finish them. Simeone’s team are creating just 11.4 chances per game compared to 13.3 last season. It’s a significant drop-off and it’s another reason why they are struggling. Injuries to Koke and Yannick Carrasco have not helped in that regard, but there is a feeling that the problems run deeper than that.
Perhaps an even bigger concern for Simeone is that his side look more vulnerable than ever defensively. Atletico have been one of the toughest teams to break down in Europe in recent years, but the stats show a worrying trend.
The number of shots on target they are facing has increased from 2.7 per game to four per game over the last two seasons. It shows that opponents are finding them easier and easier to break down.
Simeone’s side have traditionally been the masters of holding onto a lead, but that no longer seems to be the case either. They have lost the lead in four of their last nine games, which is practically unheard of for Atletico, and the situation might be even worse if it wasn’t for Jan Oblak’s brilliance in goal.
So can Simeone turn things around?
The Argentine signed a new contract until 2020 in September, but after six years in charge there is an argument that ‘Cholismo’ may simply have run its course. When asked if the Simeone cycle is over in a recent poll by Madrid-based newspaper Marca, 54 per cent of readers said yes. It shows how the doubts are growing.
Simeone’s achievements at Atletico have been extraordinary but it is only natural for motivation to drop off after so many years of punching above their weight.
The odds are stacked against them now more than ever. If Simeone can defy expectations and pull them back to the top from here, it would arguably be his most impressive achievement yet.