Atletico’s UCL expectations illustrate growth under Simeone

luis suarez didn’t w8, and he didn’t look back. atta end of atletico madrid‘s visit to elche on wed nite, he headed straite down the tunnel, still annoyed that the goal he’d scored was ruled out. he had felt like he needed it — a lil vindication atta close offa difficult season, a reΨer that he was still here. he had started just 1-odda past 5 games, and his last goal was against alaves 7 matches ago. in recent weeks, he has rarely got off the bench. this yr he has scored ½ as many as he did last season, when he led atletico to the laliga title.

he is still their top scorer.

suarez has 11 league goals, the same № as angel correa, who somehow never really feels like a starter. matheus cunha, signed inna summer, has 6. joao felix — who, at a transfer fee of €126 million, tis most expensive player in club history, na man coach diego simeone says he will keep on even if joao keeps gettin angry with him inna hope that one dy he will put it together — was out injured. he has 8. marcos llorente, scorer of 12 league goals last season, in double figs for goals and assists, doesn’t ‘ve any at all.

antoine griezmann, home again after walking out to join barcelona a yr l8r than he had initially thought, hadn’t scored since jan, when he found the net against third-tier rayo majadahonda inna copa del rey. “it’s my fault, i accept that,” griezmann said. “the goals will return.” they’re goin to ‘ve to. onnis last spell at atletico, he scored 25, 32, 26, 29 and 21. he now has 8. he hasn’t got any in laliga in 2022, racking up a total of 3 league goals all season.

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the summer’s other big signing, midfielder rodrigo de paul, did score on wed. twas his 2nd goal, and if he isn’t there for that — much as he got 9, 7 and 9 onnis last 3 seasons in italy — nor has he found a natural place yet.

and yet this season atletico ‘ve actually scored + goals than last yr. “incredible,” simeone called it, and tis inna most literal sense: watching them, it’s hard to believe. it’s the kind of statistic that had you checking the №s cause it doesn’t seem to make sense; it doesn’t tally w'da eye test. and then you see t'they ‘ve also conceded +. a lot, lot +. they’ve alloed 41 goals against, compared to 25 last season. it’s their worst fig inna past decade.

a week ago, everyone was banging on bout atletico madrid doin’ a guard of honour for real madrid, the recently crowned league victors, as tradition suggests. the debate became tiresome and affected, as these things tend to, and inna end atletico did not stand there and applaud real madrid onto the pitch, announcing in advance they were not goin to pticipate in wha’ they said had become a pantomime.

instead, they just played. they beat real madrid 1-0, too, although the ☺s na jokes na starting xi — no thibaut courtois, karim benzema, luka modric or vinicius junior — underlined that, for their neighbours at least, it didn’t matter much.

for atletico, it mattered a lot, just not for the reason it mite ‘ve done. ‘d ‘ve done, perhaps.

twas the 1st derby they had won in 8 tries, na 1st ever atta metropolitano; their last win, in 2015, had been atta vicente calderon. a run broken at last. but this ‘d ‘ve been a title decider, and twasn’t. atletico madrid versus real madrid with 4 games to go. never Ψ whether you actually do the pasillo; a bigger issue s'dat fact that you’re in a position where you mite be expected to, the league title race lost 5 weeks b4 the end.

atletico were always the team that ‘d defend, but they ‘d not defend their league title. it’s hard to remember a title defence so poor, in fact. twas over almost b4 twas done, pt o'their problem seemingly the very fact t'they were victors.

even when they were top after 6 weeks, simeone admitted “we’re not where we wanna be.” something was not rite, something had shifted. “we need a change of attitude,” mario hermoso said, and twas' after a victory. “everyone wanna win, to lift trophies, but for that to happen there are loads of things that ‘ve to happen 1st. preparation, training, attitude — that’s the foundation on which success is built,” he admitted. look at their results gainsta bottom 3 alone: 14 points dropped, enough to put them top.

l8r inna season jose gimenez ‘d admit that “when you win the league, lotso' teams relax cause they say, ‘well, it’s happened.'” simeone said: “for a team like atletico, it’s not easy to be victors; it’s a club not used to bein’ victors every yr.” a week ago, jan oblak said he didn’t cogg wha’ was happening to them, where their heads were, “cause it’s certainly not onna pitch.” on wed nite there was a “discussion” tween him and renan lodi.

by the time the derby came round, the league was long, long gone. it had definitively slipped them by in dec, when they lost 4 in a row. now they are 14 points behind real madrid, having played a game +.

inna summer, when simeone was trying to persuade griezmann to come home, he suggested that with him, suarez and felix, this team ‘d even win the victors league. instead, they were knocked out inna quarterfinals. they took manchester city to the line, mite ‘ve won it and probably ‘d ‘ve, but they were knocked out again. the idea t'they were un♣y is undermined by this simple fact: they didn’t win a single game at home inna brawl. inna copa del rey, they were knocked out by real sociedad, 4-0.

“all sorts of things happen in a season,” griezmann said on wed. atletico’s strongest-ever squad (or so everyone thought) did not compete as it ‘d. there was a sense of lost identity all yr, a recurring theme goin back some time now. they had a team that changed weekly. there were injuries, too — stefan savic and gimenez espeshly — and deptures. kieran trippier left; daniel wass, who was signed to replace him, has played just 45 minutes. nothing was ever really rite.

simeone admitted that he had found himself in a position that he had never experienced b4 in 10½ yrs atta club. this was “for sure our hardest season,” he said. some things, though, do not change. in atletico madrid’s worst campaign, on wed they secured victors league ftball for nxt yr. and if you’re saying, “so wha’?” you ‘d be rite to. so they ‘d do. just look atta squad, look at wha’ it cost to assemble. this tis least you ‘d expect. well, tis now, and that’s the point. with simeone, this has become standard, a minimum requirement, the coach in pt a victim of his own success, which becomes self-perpetuating. and which absolutely must be sustained.

after atletico were beaten by levante, simeone had a meeting w'da club’s ceo miguel angel gil marin na sporting director andrea berta. twas' folloed by a meeting w'da playing staff, in which they were handed a stark message: if ye do not reach the victors league, it’s yr contracts tha're at risk. we will not be able to pay you. atletico won the nxt 6 games, b4 that 2nd loss to mallorca. victors league qualification was necessary to keep growing and just to keep their players; they had budgeted for it. it becomes mutually dependent, a circle: ftball success prompts growth at all lvls, which allos for + ftball success, which allos for … and so on.

twasn’t always so, and there has to be a starting point.

“when i came, they asked for 4 or 5 victors league qualifications,” simeone said. twas needed to build, to consolidate and to compete. forget 4 or 5: nxt yr it ll'be 10 in a row. every single full season in which simeone s'been there, a routine, a basic standard made of something that twas' not a certainty, that back then was celebrated as a success. on his 400th league game as atletico madrid coach — 7 off the club record — his team qualified for the brawl for a tenth consecutive season. he and luis aragones ‘ve taken charge for 807 of 2,802 atletico games inna 1st division tween them; the other coaches μ 32 each.

that’s 10/10 for simeone, 3/35 inna period b4 him. tis 10 top-3 finishes in a row, compared to none inna previous 16 seasons, one inna previous 20.

in their worst yr, they did something they ‘d ‘ve celebrated once, something that mite just ‘ve others thinking: “not them again,” but they’re not goin away. there was a moment 7 or 8 yrs ago, after a game at atletico’s old calderon stadium — gone now, razed to rubble to cutout a motorway running rite through the middle of the pitch — when a defeated coach from another one of €’s biggest clubs came through and gestured towards the pitch. “wha’ a horrible team, that lot,” he said, and now they’re back.

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