Diego Simeone
Champions LeagueSoccer

Champions League preview: Atletico Madrid searching for new identity

February 22, 2022September 12th, 2023

Identity counts for a lot in football. The best teams are guided by an easily definable set of principles that bind together everything they do on and off the pitch, writes Graham Ruthven.

It wasn’t so long ago that Atletico Madrid and Manchester United had a clear identity. They played in a certain way. A lot has changed since then, though. Atleti and United will meet in the Champions League round of 16 this week with both clubs enduring difficult seasons.

Much has certainly been made of the latter’s struggles. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked after a farcical start to the campaign and things haven’t got much better under interim manager Ralf Rangnick. Diego Simeone is still in his job, but Atletico Madrid have even bigger issues than their Champions League opponents. While Rangnick is, on some level, instilling new ideas into his players and putting in place a tactical structure, Simeone and his Atleti team are drowning in an identity crisis of their own making.

More than once, Simeone has stated his desire to transition Atletico Madrid into a more expansive style of play. The Argentine’s underdog mentality has sustained Atleti for the last 10 years, but ‘Cholismo,’ as the ideology is widely dubbed, might have taken the Spanish capital club as far as it can.So far, though, Simeone’s efforts to turn Atletico Madrid into a more dynamic, attack-minded outfit have failed. Worse than this, Atleti have lost the muscle memory to revert back to their default. This has left Simeone’s team in tactical no-man’s land. They are neither a free-flowing attacking side nor a solid defensive unit.

Defensive wall

Previously renowned for being among the best at keeping the ball out of their own net, Atletico Madrid have conceded more goals (34) than any other team in the top half of the La Liga table this season. They have lost more points from winning positions (15) than any other side. Atleti have become a soft touch.

Simeone has been unable to find the right balance. Only two teams (Real Madrid and Real Betis) have scored more goals than Atletico Madrid (45) this season, but they have struggled to control matches. Simeone has central midfield options – Koke, Rodrigo de Paul, Thomas Lemar, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Marcos Llorente – but has yet to find the right formula.

The January departure of Kieran Trippier has given Simeone another problem on the right side of his team. The England international was a key supply line with his crossing and set piece deliveries. To make matters worse, Daniel Wass, the versatile midfielder-turned-full back signed to replace Trippier, is already sidelined through injury.

Key players

Injuries have also hindered Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez with Joao Felix, the most expensive player in Atletico Madrid’s history, something of a misfit. This has placed much of the goalscoring burden on Angel Correa who, to his credit, has delivered. But should a team of Atleti’s pedigree be so dependent on one figure?

For over a decade, Atletico Madrid have been a reflection of their manager. That, however, is no longer the case with some even suggesting Atleti and Simeone would be better off parting ways at the end of the season. Ernesto Valverde, still out of work after leaving Barcelona two years ago, has already been linked with the position.

Wednesday night’s match at least presents Simeone with a chance to point the way forward. The Champions League is the final frontier for Atletico Madrid in that they have made the competition’s final twice but never taken the final step. They still have the individual quality to make a deep run this season.

There is, however, a growing sense that Atleti is reaching a juncture in its modern history as a club. While Manchester United have at least recognised the need for a change of course, their Champions League last 16 opponents are paralysed by their commitment to their legendary manager. Simeone’s Atletico Madrid legacy cannot be questioned, but must prove he is the right man for the club’s future.

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