La Liga Analysis Opinion

Mendizarroza, Vitoria-Gasteiz – This was a very impressive performance from Atletico Madrid; tightening their grip on second place away at an Alaves side sincerely harbouring hopes of playing European football next season was not going to be an easy task.

It started with a goal five minutes into the match and ended with a fourth, five minutes before time, domination was there throughout. Yet, in many ways, this was an atypical performance from Atletico. This type of display has not been seen on too many occasions over the past five years or so.

Atletico are in second place, far from a catastrophe for the so-called “second team” of Madrid, and according to Diego Simeone, they are still very much in the title race. However, realistically they are not. Their two-nil defeat at Athletic Bilbao last weekend meant that the gap between them and leaders Barcelona increased to 10 points.

What made it worse was that three days earlier they were knocked out of the Champions League, having led from the first leg by two goals against Juventus. Furthermore, this was supposed to be their Champions League, the final is to be played at their home in June and much of the season’s planning had been geared to reaching it.

If the performance against Alaves was uncharacteristic of Atletico in terms of control, possession and goalscoring, then the trip to Turin was the opposite but still completely different to the Atletico that we have become accustomed to. Conceding three goals – albeit to one of the greatest goalscorers of all-time – is very un-Atletico. Having also been eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Girona, it is not wide of the mark to say that in late March, Atletico’s season is over. The manner in which their season has drifted to disappointment is the most concerning factor.

In both Bilbao and Turin, Atletico put up little fight, there was no aggression and too many mistakes. Shots have been a premium whilst clean sheets have become less frequent. Yes, the victory at Alaves was an improvement, but again it only highlighted the swings that Atletico are experiencing currently.

The consistency that they prided themselves on and led them to Champions League finals, a Copa del Rey victory, a Europa League triumph only last summer and, of course, the La Liga title in 2014, has disappeared. Now they are more erratic and adorning a different personality. Atletico no longer look like Atletico.

One might say that this is all very Atletico behaviour; Las Culpas rearing its head again, in that everything always ends up going wrong for Atletico. After a period of calm and a clear approach, there is a growing sense of a muddle and confusion. One could also argue that in fact, this Atletico is the very same as recent times, with the same approach and clear understanding but just not good enough to execute as in times gone by.

Going into the second leg against Juventus, there was a strong belief that they could hold on, with Jan Oblak in goal – who has been their standout player this season by an absolute mile – it was definitely comprehendible.

Naturally, Atletico tried to defend the lead and were reluctant to attack to try and grab the tie-winning away goal. But when Simeone’s side tried to attack, it was too late, the damage had been done and the conclusion of the night was that Atletico can no longer do what they used to do. One poignant line in the aftermath was in El Pais: “the style that has given them so much, has taken so much from them.” That Atletico were going out of a competition in which a lot of effort had been ploughed and that the opportunity to right the wrongs of recent Champions League finals at their home stadium had dissipated was felt strongly.

There is an urge to think that these two defeats signal not only the end of Atletico’s season but also possibly more. Simeone has briefly tried to reinvent his side at the start of each of the last few seasons. But due to results, resources or something deeper, he has always veered back to what he knows and what he has had success with.

He has recently signed a new contract with the club and so one suspects that a new approach will have to come from within rather than someone new. A few bad results should not determine how a club tries to play the game, but this sentiment has been growing; the style and the players are not quite matching. It feels like Atletico are at a crossroads.

The best-paid manager in world football should be capable of deciding the direction that Atletico now must move. When Simeone arrived he revolutionised everything, with Manu Burgos, his assistant, and Oscar Ortega, his fitness coach, both preaching all that Simeone stood for.

Through their fight against the odds, the aggression they played with, and sheer desire against whomever they faced, Atletico became a high-flier themselves. With that though comes pressures that don’t exist for most other clubs. Signings have been wasteful especially in attacking positions, there have been countless strikers come and go and none have convinced. None have truly gained the trust of Simeone, except for Antoine Griezmann. But even he is now considering his future at the club.

Not only are Atletico possibly losing their best striker, but they are also losing some handy defenders. Lucas Hernandez is off to Bayern Munich in the summer, Diego Godin is seemingly off too, and fellow elder-statesmen Juanfran, Felipe Luis and Stefan Savic are all either thinking of leaving or growing older, which is a problem with how Simeone wants his defence to play. Is it just a coincidence that questions start to appear more readily when Gabi leaves? Possibly, Atletico must ensure that there are leaders on the pitch to take this current team forward.

It appears that now is a natural time for a change at Atletico. Not completely but subtlety and cleverly. The performance at Alaves certainly hints at a path that Simeone could lead his side down to yet more acclaim. With the shackles off somewhat, it allows the more attack-minded players such as Thomas Partey, Alvaro Morata, Diego Costa and Griezmann to express themselves to a greater extent.

With a little less caution thrown to the wind, Atletico can go beyond their binary goals column and become a more effervescent, balanced and dominant side. Simeone went for a 4-3-3 on Saturday evening, differing from the 4-4-2 that he rarely moves away from, but it worked. And it will work again, especially if Morata, Costa and Griezmann can become a cohesive and fruitful attacking unit. Playing in such a manner will also encourage them all to stay.

But what they should be staying for is a new Atletico. Time and again Simeone has tried to reinvent his side, but now more than ever there is a need and a desire to do so properly. The goals of Saul Niguez, Costa, Morata and Thomas to give Atletico a four-goal victory against Alaves, were the result of a more controlled and attack-minded approach.

It was different. It definitely felt so. It certainly hinted at a way forward for Simeone’s side, in more ways than one. Now at the crossroads, Atletico must decide in which direction they want to move and overcome an ironic crisis of identity.

Los Otros Puntos

Iago Aspas is Celta Vigo’s man and here, on this return, he showed why he is their man. Two goals down to fellow drifters Villarreal, Aspas scored twice to take the home side to a 3-2 victory and put them somewhat in the driving seat when it comes to La Liga survival. With Villarreal facing Barcelona and Real Betis in the next week, the visitors needed to hang on for at least a point at Balaidos, but they couldn’t manage it. Karl Ekambi scored Villarreal’s opener and then laid on the second for Alfonso Pedraza. But the visitors were unable to manage their third win in a row and that was mainly down to Aspas. By the end he was in tears, he had scored twice either side of Maxi Gomez’s equaliser. If only the rest of the Celta team had as much passion and desire as Aspas, they would not be in such a relegation predicament.

Of all the teams to deal Getafe’s European hopes a blow, it had to be Leganes. The atmosphere beforehand was tremendous and the Coliseum Alfonso Perez was packed-out for the latest south Madrid derby. It was a close first half but Michael Santos’ goal four minutes after the break gave the visitors the lead. Juanfran doubled Los Pepineros’ advantage to give them their first win in three.

It looked like Girona were heading towards their first league win at home since October, but Athletic Bilbao had other ideas…

Two goals. Two Leo Messi goals. Barcelona beat Espanyol in the Barcelona derby.

Los Resultados

Girona 1-2 Athletic Bilbao

Getafe 0-2 Leganes

Barcelona 2-0 Espanyol

Celta Vigo 3-2 Villarreal

Alaves 0-4 Atletico Madrid

Levante 2-2 Eibar

Rayo Vallecano – Real Betis

Sevilla 0-1 Valencia

Valladolid 1-1 Real Sociedad

Real Madrid 3-2 Huesca

La Clasificación

La Liga Analysis