ESPN football writer Eduardo Alvarez breaks down how Diego Simeone has rebuilt after a worrying start to the season
Leicester City fans firmly believe that the Champions League quarter finals match-up against Atletico de Madrid arrives at just the right moment of the year for their team.
The problem is that Diego Simeone’s team feel exactly the same way.
Atletico began the season looking rattled after their traumatic defeat in the Champions League final at the hands of their Madrid neighbours. Simeone’s defensive system, usually Atletico’s biggest strength, appeared rusty and soft. Their biggest signing of the summer, French forward Kevin Gameiro, struggled to fit into the physical demands that playing up front for Atletico involves.
A very poor run of results in La Liga in November - one victory, one draw and three defeats in five matches, during which the team scored three goals and conceded eight - set off all the alarms. Although their Champions League campaign was still alive, their poor performance in the domestic competition could have compromised their participation in the biggest European tournament for the following season, with catastrophic financial consequences for the club. In sixth position at that time, that risk was real.
In hindsight, that moment was rock bottom. From that point onwards, and thanks to a few tactical and personnel decisions made by Simeone, the team have recovered their swagger. Their performance in La Liga - only one defeat in their last 16 matches, against Barcelona in late February - is now that of a contender. They’ve now climbed to the third position, although still seven points behind Barcelona.
As it is the case with Atletico’s achievements since he took over five and a half seasons ago, most of the reasons behind this improvement are Simeone’s responsibility. He’s had the patience to give Gameiro time and trust, and the French striker has finally forged a terrific duo with the in-shape Antoine Griezmann.
Simeone’s understanding of how to get the most out of his midfield has finally made the Koke-Gabi pairing work in the middle of the park. And his bet for Stefan Savic in the centre of the defence has also paid off, a risk Simeone took even though the Montenegrin had looked shaky in certain matches with the ball at his feet.
Above anything else, Atletico are an extremely competitive team. All eleven players defend as a tight unit, with one of the best goalies in Europe, Slovenia’s Jan Oblak, as their last resort.
No one works harder on defence than their stars, Griezmann and Spanish international Koke. Their offensive flow isn’t particularly creative, but they know how to get their forwards in scoring positions. The help of both full backs, Juanfran and especially Filipe Luis, is key to their attacking movements, although their most gifted player with the ball, the Belgian midfielder Yannick Carrasco, hasn’t fulfilled his potential yet.
Their biggest weakness lies on their bench. A couple of injuries in key positions can have a remarkable impact on the line-up. In fact, off the bench only the Argentinean Angel Correa can add some offensive spice, as former Liverpool and Chelsea player Fernando Torres looks almost the same as 10 years ago, but performs as though he were 20 years older.
Last Saturday’s derby against Real Madrid exemplified well Atletico’s strengths and weaknesses. Gameiro, injured, did not play, so Torres occupied his place, which represents a serious downgrade. Even though Zinedine Zidane’s team were almost playing for the title, Atletico were defensively solid for most of the match, and managed to leave Torres and Griezmann in clear scoring situations more than once. With 1-0 down, Simeone moved the bench and it was the diminutive Correa who found Griezmann for the equaliser.
Probably in the best shape of his career, 26-year-old Griezmann has evolved immensely under Simeone. A left sided forward with speed has become an all-around player that can influence the outcome of a match as a scorer, as a passer or even organising the offensive flow of his team closer to midfield. The talented Frenchman has learned how to use his talent depending on the opponent and the specific game situations, something he rarely did during his previous tenure with Real Sociedad. The interest from other top European clubs is evident, and despite his emotional and contractual links with Atletico, this summer will indeed bring news regarding his future.
The lack of options off the bench has been an issue for Atletico since Simeone took over. The Argentinean manager has compensated the subpar returns of some of his signings with an excellent physical preparation of the squad. Their routines allow players aged over 30 years old such as Juanfran or the instrumental Diego Godin to maintain a high level of stamina for most of the season, peaking in April and May. That partially explains their two Champions League finals in the last three years, and how, similarly to Leicester, they have reached this stage of the tournament close to their best shape of the year.
A couple of months ago, this fixture would have looked like a fight between minnows. At this stage of the season, however, Leicester vs Atletico will be an extremely physical contest that will see a competitive, hard-to-beat team make the semi-finals. This Atletico squad may have the edge due to their experience in this setting, but we’ve seen enough miracles from Leicester to know well they can win this one too.