With just minutes of the Madrid derby left, and Real Madrid cruising at 2-0 up, the home fans inside the Santiago Bernabeu united in a chant of “Cholo, reste” - ‘Cholo’ being Diego Simeone’s nickname and “reste” roughling translating as “stay.” The Atletico Madrid boss put on a brave face down on the touchline, but the whole scene, the opposition chant included, painted the picture of a team, and a manager, suffering an identity crisis.
While there is no apparent immediate chance of Simeone leaving Atleti, the 51-year-old is facing pressing questions. Only 17 fixtures of the 2021/22 La Liga campaign have been played, but the defending champions already find themselves cut adrift, with Real Madrid 13 points clear of their city rivals.
Atletico Madrid are currently a shadow of the team that dominated La Liga from start to finish last season. Not only have Simeone’s side lost their last three matches, they have won just four of their eight home fixtures this term. Only Cadiz have conceded more points with goals conceded in the last five minutes in La Liga this season than Atleti with nine of the 20 goals conceded by the capital side coming from set pieces.
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What were once strengths are now weaknesses for an Atletico Madrid team increasingly uncomfortable in their own skin. Their La Liga title defence might already be over meaning everything Simeone does between now and the end of the season will be about pointing the club in the right direction again to ensure this is merely a fallow year.
Of course, Simeone has been in this sort of position before, and recently too. Midway through the 2019/20 season, many Atletico Madrid fans questioned whether the Argentine was reaching the end of a managerial cycle. A 1-0 home defeat to Barcelona in December 2019 even had some Atleti fans waving white handkerchiefs in open revolt against their manager.
2020 saw Simeone find answers to the questions being asked of him with the addition of Luis Suarez giving Atleti the cutting edge they had previously lacked after the sale of Antoine Griezmann. Marcos Llorente’s conversion into an attack-minded midfield creator also changed the character of the team as Simeone achieved the ideological evolution he’d publicly aspired to.
Since then, though, regression has been clear. Atletico Madrid are so far removed from the original principles of ‘Cholismo’ that they can no longer grind out results like they did for years under Simeone, but the loss of attacking verve means they can’t outscore opponents like they did for much of last season.
Atleti are stuck in ideological no-man’s land. Their midfield too frequently slows down possession play while their attack isn’t as sharp as it might be. At the back, injuries have depleted Atletico Madrid’s ranks, but the defensive structure that once made Los Colchoneros so difficult to play against is now fragmented. Simeone’s team are now a soft touch.
The Champions League, where Atleti will face Manchester United in the last 16, offers a route to redemption with Simeone determined to lift the trophy that has evaded him over the course of his managerial career, but there’s little evidence to suggest this season will end with the Wanda Metropolitano outfit crowned European champions.
Identity, certainly in Atletico Madrid’s case, comes down to more than just the players on the pitch. Simeone has recognised the difficulty in perpetuating Atleti’s underdog status when they now play in a state-of-the-art spaceship of a stadium. Their recent transfer activity also paints the picture of a super-club, as did Atletico Madrid’s membership of the ill-fated Super League.
But Simeone, as a coach, must focus on what he can control. Atleti boast the strongest squad in La Liga and one of the strongest in Europe, but there is no common thread that links the players in the Wanda Metropolitano dressing room. That’s what Simeone must find. He must make Real Madrid’s fans regret that they ever wanted him to stay at Atletico Madrid. The recovery must start soon.
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