Football Features

“Playing in the wrong era” – Atletico Madrid find themselves in the middle of this season’s defining week

By Sam Leveridge, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 14:00, 11 December 2021

On 12th December, 2020, Atlético Madrid were beaten by Real Madrid in the derbi madrileño and it seemed a mere blip which brought to an end a 26-game unbeaten run. A point clear with a game in hand, it seemed a mere inconvenience in their pursuit of the title. They were a side oozing confidence and self-belief.

On 12th December, 2021, Atlético Madrid face Real Madrid in another Madrid derby where it seems that a defeat could make or break their season. A rollercoaster week of emotions has seen them humiliated at home, but then celebrating on the road in Europe in style. And now, they’re back in the Spanish capital, up against their neighbours, with it all to play for. How did Atleti end up in this position?

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Saturday, 4th December – Atlético Madrid 1-2 Mallorca

For the very first time, Atlético Madrid surrendered a lead to lose while playing at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano. Newly-promoted Mallorca stunned the hosts with two goals in the last 10 minutes, the winner coming deep into injury time.

A cursory glance across the field showed players hunched on their knees, exhausted and devoid of any positive emotion. This Atlético Madrid team had been shattered, both physically and mentally, by the demands of a difficult start to the season.

In the 2020/21 campaign which saw them win La Liga, Atleti only dropped points in four out of 19 fixtures on home turf. In the opening eight games of 2021/22, they’d already matched that figure.

The confidence and elegance that was on display as Atleti dismantled strong opposition like Barcelona and Real Betis has been all too fleeting. There were rare moments in which the fluidity in attack allowed João Félix and Antoine Griezmann to exploit spaces with Luis Suárez adding the finishing touches, but overall, chaos has been the theme.

Those two games were two of just three La Liga matches which Atlético have won by more than a single goal this season. Failure to win a single home fixture in Europe this season has been compounded by inconsistent form which means Atleti have to desperately grind out results.

Had games ended in 90 minutes, Atleti would be on 24 points, rather than 29. That would leave them only a point ahead of crisis-stricken Barcelona and five adrift of the top four. Los Colchoneros are only where they are thanks to injury-time goals, rescuing a draw against Villarreal, with wins over Osasuna, Getafe and Espanyol also thanks to late heroics.

What’s been even more concerning has been in defence. Sloppy and inconsistent defending has been compounded by uncharacteristic Jan Oblak errors. Their xG conceded remains the lowest in LaLiga at 0.86 per 90, but they are underperforming significantly, with 1.06 goals conceded per 90. That 0.2 goals per 90 under-performance is the fourth worst in LaLiga, with two of the teams to rank lower among the three that make up the relegation zone. It’s also the first time since xG stats were first collected that Atlético have performed worse than their xG against, with an average overperformance of 0.21 over the past 7 seasons.

Mallorca took advantage, and struck Atleti when they were already down. With the stars of last season, like Suárez and midfield general Koke, looking tired, and others forced out of position, like Marcos Llorente, due to injuries elsewhere, such a defeat merely rubbed salt into the wounds of a difficult start to the season. That it was Real Madrid loanee Take Kubo who scored the last-gasp winner, only made it even harder to take.

Tuesday, 7th December – Porto 1-3 Atlético Madrid

The outlook was pessimistic for Atlético as their Champions League group stage qualification went down to the final fixture. If Milan beat a weakened Liverpool side with nothing to play for, they’d have to score more goals in a win over Porto, and even if Milan failed to win, it was three points or nothing. Just like Mallorca, and only 10 days earlier, Milan had struck late to rob Atleti when they deserved more but failed to impress.

Then, injuries to José María Giménez and Stefan Savić, in addition to the suspension of Felipe, left only one fit central defender. Even worse, inside the first 15 minutes, Suárez, who has featured in every game for his club this season, was forced off injured.

It was ‘backs to the wall’ stuff for Atlético Madrid, and Diego Simeone reverted to the basics. It was structured, slow and physical. It was ugly. But it was pure Atlético Madrid. This was Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.

“Hate’s a very strong word… I hate watching them,” Steve Nicol said during ESPN’s coverage. “This team’s playing in the wrong era. They should have been playing in the 80s.” Atleti failed to build any kind of rhythm, particularly in the first half, but relied upon determination and grit alone.

Full-back Šime Vrsaljko filled in at centre-back for the first time in his career, playing 60 minutes with a broken jaw which later required surgery. It may not have been nice to watch, but it was grinding out the game in the best way they could.

As the game opened up in the second half, Atleti grew more confident. There was more movement in attack and Ángel Correa’s introduction added a spark and a livewire, with Griezmann showing his quality to adjust and open the scoring. Two late goals, from Correa and Rodrigo de Paul, ended the 90 minutes of suffering and started a party.

Atleti were through to the knock-out stages, but it was the manner in which they’d done it which struck a chord. They hadn’t done things the fun way, they’d suffered, but they’d won the battle through their commitment. “That’s what we are, competing and giving everything,” Simeone said post-match.

“We knew what was coming today, how important it was with so much at stake. This is Atlético Madrid,” defender Mario Hermoso said after the win. “This result can be a turning point for what we want to achieve.”

Sunday, 12th December – Real Madrid vs Atlético Madrid

Off the back of such a crucial, yet exhausting win, Atlético have the fixture they most thrive in and most dread in equal measure: the derbi madrileño at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. They return to the scene of defeat last season.

Not since February 2016 have Atleti won a clash against their eternal rivals in La Liga, while Los Colchoneros have only won away from home in the La Liga fixture three times since the turn of the century. With Real Madrid 10 points clear at the top of La Liga and gaining momentum, it almost seems that Atleti’s title defence could come to rest in this fixture.

The importance of it goes beyond just Sunday evening. Next up for Atlético after the derbi is a tricky visit to the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán to face Sevilla. Building confidence is essential if Simeone is to bring back a winning mindset to a tired squad.

Carlo Ancelotti has done just that on the other side of town. Where Atleti were beaten at home by Mallorca, Real Madrid made light work of them in a 6-1 win earlier in the season. Their confidence is sky high and they find themselves in almost the polar opposite position to Atlético.

But there’s just one difference. Atlético Madrid will be hungry for this win. They’ve already shown in Porto that pure desire alone is often enough to get them over the line. Real Madrid’s squad of proven winners have no shortage of desire either, but following nine consecutive victories, in which Ancelotti has rotated as little as possible, complacency and tiredness may begin to creep in just at the same time as adrenaline is pumping through the Atleti squad.

The victors in the derbi madrileño on Sunday would not just be taking three points, but they’d be dealing a significant psychological blow which could have significant implications for the La Liga title race. Mario Hermoso labelled the Porto win “a turning point”, but that will only be the case if the upward trend continues.

Atleti are the fighters who have been knocked down, but keep getting back up. They are capable of delivering the knock-out blow, though the odds are stacked against them. And that’s just the way Diego Simeone likes it.

Article produced by Sam Leveridge in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown