Around the hour mark, it became clear Atlético Madrid wouldn’t push for a goal. They had been sitting deep, 10 or 11 men behind the ball, breaking up Barcelona one-twos, crowding Leo Messi off the ball, clearing crosses with minimal effort, but they had nothing going forward, nobody up field. When they broke on counterattacks that often died before reaching the halfway line, it was with two or three players. They stole a goal in the 77th minute, on a muscular set piece goal from Diego Costa, then left Ousmane Dembele alone in the box 13 minutes later, and the game ended 1-1. A draw was, if not inevitable, the only fair outcome.
Atleti did this at home, in their refurbished stadium that’s set to host the Champions League final at the end of this season, having spent some $140 million over the summer on new players and undisclosed millions more on fresh contracts for Antoine Griezmann, Josema Gimenez, and Angel Correa. They had a chance to go top of the Liga table, against about as beatable a Barcelona team as has existed over the past decade, and they didn’t play poorly so much as with shrinking ambition. Until Costa’s goal, they never looked like they would take the lead. They defended well, created nothing, and got what they deserved.
Strictly speaking, this is fine. A point against Barcelona is always a satisfactory result. But it’s not 2011; the blaugrana aren’t invincible. They’ve been beaten by Leganés and Levante this year, held to a draw by Girona, played off the pitch by Real Betis. Nor is it 2014, when Atlético Madrid had the back line of the century, went about 14 players deep, and won every other game 1-0. Atleti and Barça have, if not precisely equal means, hen precisely the same goals. They want to win stuff—La Liga; the Champions League; the Copa del Rey, if they can swing it—and they both have the talent to do so.
Atleti, at least so far this season, appear to lack the mentality. Some of this is down to the peculiar in-betweenness of their stature. Though they’re no longer cash-strapped or underpowered, they’re not quite Real Madrid or Manchester City either. They have a confused identity. But lots of clubs would love to be able to afford the type of confusion Atleti can. This past summer, they snapped up Thomas Lemar from Monaco. Liverpool and Arsenal were reportedly interested, but the Madrid club could pay Monaco a hefty fee and the player was interested in joining one of the best sides in Europe. They also held onto Antoine Griezmann despite heavy overtures from Barcelona. These sorts of things have never happened before. Atleti are used to losing out on transfer targets pursued by rich English clubs, used to losing their best players to Barça and Chelsea and Liverpool. That’s not necessarily the case anymore.
Lemar and Griezmann have combined for just seven goals in 22 appearances. Lemar in particular looks like an immiserated poet trapped in a biker bar. Atleti’s attack is expensive, but it’s not clicking.
By the way, they’re two points off the league lead and will almost definitely make it out of their Champions League group. They’re on target to achieve their objectives for the season. But something’s not right. Actually, several things aren’t. Atleti are wildly inconsistent. They’ll thump a wildly in-form Dortmund side in a midweek game, then turn what should be a workmanlike win against Athletic Bilbao into an excruciating ordeal. They’ll fail to score against Celta and handle Real Sociedad with no problem. They play well, get a goal, then suddenly stop. They give away late equalizers. They combine like everybody in the midfield just met each other before the match. They hardly ever field their best lineup. It’s a mess, albeit a reasonably high-functioning one.
It’s difficult at this point not to criticize Diego Simeone, who rescued the club from severe peril when he arrived in December of 2011 and without whom Atleti, poorly run as they are at an executive level, might easily descend back into chaos. Stabilizing though he is, he’s tactically stubborn and seems not to understand the strengths of his own squad. There’s a whiff of Wengerishness about him these days.
Take, for instance, Atleti’s lineup problem. They play a 4-4-2 and have seven midfielders in the squad: Lemar, Koke, Saúl, Thomas Partey, Rodri, Vitolo, and Correa. Rodri, who has been a revelation since arriving from Villarreal over the summer, has become a fixture as a holding mid. Saúl, who has been in terrible form all season, starts almost every game. Koke, who really doesn’t have a position and serves little purpose other than to run himself into the ground and pass backwards whenever possible, also starts every game. That leaves one slot open for the four other players, all of whom besides the pitiably oft-injured Vitolo, have arguably earned a regular starting spot. Partey definitely has, and he looks excellent whenever given a chance to play alongside Rodri as the more adventurous member of a double pivot. Correa is a direct and dynamic player who’s transformed himself from a trained striker into a pretty effective winger. Lemar is exceedingly talented, even though he hasn’t yet found his footing.
None of these guys play enough, and they rarely play together, due to Cholo’s abiding faith in Koke and Saúl. If both of those canteranos are off the boil, as they typically have been, Atleti look lifeless in possession. There’s nobody sprinting into space, nobody dribbling past defenders. Sometimes they’ll go a few minutes without anybody simply receiving the ball and turning around to see if there’s a chance to play a through ball. Their impotence is excruciating and chronic. Whether it’s fixable or not remains theoretical, at least until Cholo gives some new blood an extended run in his starting 11.
This is easier said than done, and it’s understandable why Cholo has his attachments. Atleti’s defense-first approach has allowed them to compete against Barcelona and Madrid despite fielding less talented squads. Koke led the team in assists the year they won La Liga. But approaches grow stale and ineffectual, players deteriorate and fall out of form. It’s beginning to look like Diego Simeone values conservatism as a virtue rather than a tactic. He’s got a team that could soar, given a little more liberty, with a few new ideas. He’s either reluctant to provide what they need because he’s holding fast to some fading identity the club no longer embodies, or he’s simply incapable of doing so.
In the second half against Barcelona, Rodri won possession at the edge of his own box and played an aggressive pass that got intercepted and nearly led to a scoring opportunity. Afterwards, during a lull, Griezmann chewed the midfielder out for his recklessness. Grizi was correct to do so, but all I could think was at least somebody in red and white is trying to move the ball up the damn pitch. This might not seem like a strange thing to think about Atlético Madrid. They’ve played some extravagantly static soccer over the years. But the knowledge that they could do something more—or at least something else—renders their extreme cautiousness doubly frustrating. “Who came out for the draw?” Cholo accusatorily asked a reporter in the post-game presser. Well, perhaps nobody, Diego, but what more could you have expected with the players you put on the pitch, playing like you told them to play?