What has happened to Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid?

Colin Millar by Colin Millar / 02 November 2017, 09:40

When Diego Simeone put pen to paper on a two-year contract extension with Atletico Madrid at the start of September, it had appeared to put an end to a bizarre saga which had threatened the club’s previously unquestionable growth.

12 months earlier the Argentine took the bizarre decision to reduce his deal by two years, inevitably leading to wild speculation of dissatisfaction in his position and the strong possibility of an exit in June 2018.

Los Rojiblancos were in a period of flux as it was and were navigating a potentially defining spell in their history. This season saw them move into their new Wanda Metropolitano home from the atmospheric Vicente Calderon on the banks of the river Manzanares, which had been their home for the last five decades.

The club were also in the midst of a FIFA-imposed transfer ban, imposed for their illegalities in signing underage players. After an unsuccessful appeal, the club had to sit out both transfer windows in 2017.

However, despite a relatively precarious period of time - when the club had been hopeful of pushing on further to cement their place alongside city rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona - there was plenty of reason for optimism.

The start of the summer saw star forward Antoine Griezmann commit his future to the club - for the current season at least - while deals for Spain internationals Vitolo and Diego Costa, the latter an Atleti legend, arranged to be processed in January. The stadium move, whilst partially traumatic, also generated a lot of excitement and they won their opening two home matches of the campaign.

It was amidst this wave of optimism, positivity and hope that it was confirmed Simeone had re-added the two years back onto his current deal. Instilled in 2011, not only is he La Liga’s longest-serving manager but in Europe’s top five leagues, only Arsene Wenger at Arsenal has held his position longer. Indeed, such has been the success of ‘Cholo’ in the Atleti hot seat, many now see him and the club as synonymous.

To date, his stint in charge peaked with the sensational title win in 2014. A week later, his side were two minutes of added time away from sensationally adding the Champions League crown before they were cruelly denied by their city neighbours in the third minute of added time in Lisbon showpiece.

Indeed, the final defeat two years later, in Milan, was arguably even more painful. Superior on the night, Atleti were defeated on penalties by the same opponents. Incredibly, Los Blancos have knocked Simeone’s side out of four consecutive Champions League competitions – no other side has eliminated them during his tenure.

Yet that was partly the problem. Despite massively overachieving in the competition - Atleti’s budget is comfortably third in La Liga, but pales in comparison to many leading English sides - there was a lingering feeling he had taken the club as far as he could.

His style of efficient and often vibrant football won many admirers yet some felt it fell just short of the level their illustrious rivals were capable of. Incredibly tough to defeat, they rarely overwhelmed sides and Simeone is the chief pragmatist.

The club’s inability to win games comfortably has been the ever-present question mark throughout all the success. This season concerns over the team’s attacking structure have been exposed more than ever before. In 15 matches in all competitions, they have won only five. Domestically, they are unbeaten, and haven’t lost a La Liga game on the road this calendar year.

However, the issue is nine draws in this period is far too many, with the pressing issue being the club’s attacking issues. This is summed up in their stats from their opening four Champions League outings, where 67 shots on goals have resulted in only two goals and three points. It leaves the club, somewhat remarkably, on the brink of group stage elimination with two matches remaining. Fans may wryly remark: ‘well, at least it’s not to that lot this time’.

So too have the side, contemporarily renowned as set piece specialists, fallen to pieces from dead ball situations and crosses. In their title winning season, they were breached by headed goals only four times. Carlos Bacca’s equaliser for Villarreal in the recent 1-1 draw ensured Los Rojiblancos passed that number in only the tenth round.

Issues have come to a head with three successive midweek draws; two failures to beat Azerbaijani side Qarabag (who for context, lost 6-0 at Stamford Bridge in September) with a Copa del Rey draw against Segunda B outfit Elche sandwiched in-between. Costa and Vitolo will add directness and potency to their floundering attack, but in two months time the opportunities of silverware this season may have come and gone.

The possibility of Simeone leaving the club, either voluntarily or otherwise, are remote in the extreme. Regardless of results, this is a man who has been influential in the building of Atletico and the squad are totally his. In terms of identity and mindset, the manager, the players and the club are closely wed.

It may be a particularly testing part of their incredible, era-defining period together but win or lose, succeed or fail, Atleti and Simeone will do so together.

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