And another piece of mine on Atletico Madrid and Their Problems in Attack
Atletico Madrid fans will breathe sighs of relief upon seeing their club return to the Champions League quarterfinals once more. This is Atletico’s third consecutive season appearing in the quarterfinals, adding strength to their growing claim as one of Europe’s best teams.
It took more than three hours for Atletico to breach PSV Eindhoven in their Round of 16 clash. That moment came in the form of Antoine Griezmann‘s penalty in the penalty shootout. Atletico, the favorites to progress, never truly lived up to the billing in either leg.
Diego Simeone has, quite appropriately, been praised in many corners for revitalizing the Spanish club. Atletico did the unthinkable in winning La Liga two seasons ago while making it to the Champions League final. The 2014-15 season saw a bit of sophomore slump, but Los Rojiblancos are back again, keeping things somewhat competitive in La Liga and returning to the latter stages of club football’s elite competition.
Despite these successes, the fact remains that Atletico will never be truly elite unless their attacking style improves.
Simeone has built a team in his image. Hard-working, tenacious, passionate, team-oriented and with a never-say-die attitude. Atletico have quality footballers in every department, yet they are still better in the underdog role. Tasked as they were against PSV, with the aim of controlling both games, Simeone’s charges mainly failed to sparkle. There were chances aplenty, especially for golden boy Fernando Torres and new talisman Greizmann, but it never seemed that PSV were ever really threatened. The images of Simeone consistently active and flailing his arms on the sideline, waving the crowd on and yelling “vamos” suggested a manager who could think of little else to get past a well-organized opponent.
Passion, hard work and teamwork can get you so far, but a clinical edge or useful strategy in attack is needed to be truly elite. When the usual avenues, counter-attacks and set-pieces in this case are closed, then a team needs something more. Atletico are still missing that. They are one clinical striker away from being truly feared across Europe. Torres used to be that player, and Griezmann seems to be heading down that path so there is some hope. In the interim, Simeone needs to get his side to the point where controlling games comes as naturally as playing the underdog.
Atletico did not have full control in either leg, and the failure to score against 10-men in latter part of the first leg showcased their weakness. The Spanish side did create chances, but the failure to find the finishing touch almost came back to haunt them.
Simeone does have the tools at his disposal to produce a team that is dominant in both aspects. Griezmann and Torres are backed by the likes of Koke, Saul and Oliver Torres in midfield. All those players possess the unique blends of creativity, skill and vision necessary, and Gabi, too, possesses the ability to play in a more refined manner. Atletico need not alter their hardened mental attributes but further progress requires, well, progress.
It matters little now.
Atletico head into the quarterfinals likely to regain their underdog status given the teams they will face. The majority of teams remaining will prefer to control the ball. That means Atletico can get back to their best, harrying teams that prefer possession and delivering the killer blow when given the chance. Simeone will need to go back to the drawing board when the summer comes, though. Many thought this season would result in a change in style for the Argentine manager’s squad considering the recruits brought in. That didn’t occur, but these two games against PSV, and indeed last season’s tight Round of 16 clash with Bayer Leverkusen, means that process needs to happen sooner than later.
Simeone has gotten his charges to this point by harboring a mentality and style very much in the mold of Simeone the player. Having shared the pitch with the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron and Youri Djorkaeff, among others, he knows there is more his players can do. He will need to add that level of control and creativity to his squad if he is to really put Atletico among the elite.