This was supposed to be the season when Atletico Madrid, with their new record breaking transfer Joao Felix, and Diego Simeone celebrating his ninth year in charge, got back to challenging Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Instead they are eight points off the lead in LaLiga, on Thursday night they were dumped out of the Copa del Rey by a third division side, Liverpool loom on the horizon in the Champions Leauge, and it seems Simeone’s No 2, Mono Burgos, wants to go off and coach somewhere on his own.
There is something wrong at Atletico. You could sense it last season and in the summer when after just one year at the club, Spain midfielder Rodri decided he wanted to join Manchester City, World Cup winning defender Lucas Hernandez left to join Bayern Munich, and players such as goalkeeper Jan Oblak and Thomas Partey stalled on new contracts.
Joao Felix (centre) and his Atletico Madrid team-mates react after losing at Cultural Leonesa
Manager Diego Simeone screams on the touchline during his side’s shock defeat on Thursday
Partey’s progression as a player also suddenly looks stalled. The powerful box-to-box midfielder, who has a €50million ‘giveaway’ buy-out clause, looks below-par in holding midfield.
Saul Niguez is another who appears to be being held back, with Simeone again this season insisting he fills in at left back despite the fact he stars as an attacking midfielder for Spain.
Felix, meanwhile, is struggling to justify the huge money spent on him. The 20-year-old clearly has massive talent and will become a top player, but in the shorter-term Simeone might have benefited from the club buying him two players for £50m, rather than a then-teenager for £114m.
He was one of the few bright points of Thursday night’s capitulation against Cultural Leonesa after playing the through ball that enabled Angel Correa to put Atletico in front.
Saul Niguez (left) has been forced to pay out of position at left back for some of the season
Felix has struggled to live up to his £114m price-tag after joining Atletico Madrid last summer
In years gone by that would have been game over – Atletico rarely let teams get back into games – but now they look susceptible in defence.
They were once so tough to beat away from home too, and now it’s only four wins from 14 games on the road in all competitions.
They are suddenly conceding regularly from set-ball situations. Once a corner or a free-kick against Simeone’s side was about as useful as a throw-in on the half-way line. Now the almighty Oblak can be beaten. It happened again last weekend when Eibar scored against them from a free-kick on the way to a 2-0 win.
Simeone’s No 2, Burgos, takes a large chunk of the responsibility here. The former Atletico keeper is the master of defending set-plays.
Supporters are wondering if his planned wandering – taking a job as a manager elsewhere at the end of the season, as reported by the reliable Cadena Ser – is part of the failure to keep free-kicks and corners out.
Simeone’s assistant, Mono Burgos, is claimed to want to leave for a managerial job elsewhere
It’s up-front where Simeone has his biggest problems. The team has scored only 22 goals in La Liga – 16 fewer than Real Madrid and 28 fewer than Barcelona.
Diego Costa’s return has not worked out. He is due back from a back injury before Atletico meet Liverpool in Europe, but even the most optimistic Atletico supporters don’t believe the 31-year-old will ever rediscover the form and fitness that once made him the most frightening striker in Spain.
Alvaro Morata has top -scored with seven goals in 17 league games, but that means that 11 forwards in Spain have scored more. It’s not enough for the centre forward of the team that was expected to compete for everything at the start of the season.
The criticism of Simeone is that he does not coach attacking football well enough. It may be true that his strengths as a manager lie elsewhere – and €70m Thomas Lemar is another flair player who has not fitted in – but that was never a problem when Atletico were winning the league and reaching two Champions League finals.
Alvaro Morata has only scored seven La Liga goals all season as Atletico struggle to challenge
Simeone covers his face during Thursday night’s disappointing exit from the Copa del Rey
Simeone alluded to that on Thursday night when he was asked if he was considering his position. He said if the penalty shootout heartache of the second of those two Champions League finals was not enough to see him give up, then being knocked out in the cup would not do it either.
Atletico’s last high-profile, embarrassing Spanish Cup exit came in 2011 when they were beaten by Albacete in December. Coach Gregorio Manzano was sacked and it was Simeone who came in the following January.
He is now the longest-standing coach in the top European leagues. His frustrated attempts to learn English have always stopped him trying his luck in the Premier League, and a desire to win more at Atletico in their expansive new stadium – having achieved so much at the old, intimidating Vicente Calderon – have always persuaded him to leave a return to Serie A for a while longer.
He still has enough credit in the bank to leave Madrid on his own terms, but the events of this season so far, and particularly of Thursday night, are making many think his departure date might be sooner rather than later.
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