Atletico Madrid early season struggle: Time to panic?
For the third time already this season, Atletico Madrid dropped La Liga points. Diego Simeone's side were forced to share the spoils with Eibar on Saturday. Just five points from a possible dozen, Los Rojiblancos are off to their worst start in almost a decade.
After a stellar continental run, Atletico was expected to halt the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly this term. While Thursday European nights offered good fortune, persistent toils waited at home. Although they ultimately outdid City neighbours, Blaugrana were several steps ahead.
Atletico must have hoped to add some blocks, especially with both Real and Barca undergoing a transition. Zinedine Zidane abandoned the capital project; Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t think twice. Neither Ernesto Valverde nor Lionel Messi got bored of Catalonia. Paulinho did, though, and coaxed Andres Iniesta with a free ride to Asia.
Los Colchoneros had no such malaise. Simeone committed his squad's spine. Jan Oblak, Diego Godin and Antoine Griezmann weren't enticed by mega-money moves to Chelsea, Manchester United and Barcelona respectively. Veteran duo Fernando Torres and Gabi left, albeit the moves were best for both parties.
Having watched rivals flaunt cash during the previous window, Atleti didn't hold back this time. They broke club-record for Thomas Lemar's pace, craftiness and muscle. To ensure Rodrigo returned home after five years, Los Rojiblancos made Villarreal £20 million richer. They splashed out another £50 million for the trio of Santiago Arias, Johnny Castro and Nikola Kalinic.
As envisaged, Atletico began the campaign at full speed, landing the Spanish Super Cup like a bat from hell. Achieving victory at Real's expense made it extra special. When La Liga began, however, Simeone's men notably vanished.
Atletico gasped for air at the Mestalla. They were fortunate to survive Valencia's intensity. If not for Griezmann, Rayo Vallecano would have returned the favour. The Frenchman could do little in subsequent games, though. At Celta Vigo, he was choked as the visitors lost by two. Eibar further exposed both him and teammates.
Simeone was booed during the encounter, something that's never happened. Down by a goal, the Argentine's decision to take off Rodri for teenage debutant Borja Garces met a hostile reception from Metropolitano faithful. At last, the latter notched a 94th-minute equaliser. What an irony.
After the match, Simeone explained:
The fans come here and they are very impulsive. They see a player doing well and I take him off. But the manager who works with them every day put on a striker and that player went on to score the goal to draw the game. It's a moment you have to endure and be strong.
Simeone had every right to feel betrayed, but in reality, his team are underperforming. They currently trail fierce rivals Los Blancos by five points. Barca have an extra two. Besides this reputable pair, four others have been way better, including Alaves, a side which finished 17th last campaign.
Atletico's aggressive, combative style is waning. The entire squad is striving. Griezmann’s World Cup hangover is still fresh. Diego Costa is struggling with fitness. Arias, Kalinic and Lucas Hernandez are all unavailable due to injury. As is the suspended Stefan Savic. Lemar, meanwhile, has failed to hit the ground.
With Champions League beckoning, Simeone must find a solution. The question isn't whether he can, but how soon. A little tweaking around his starting eleven is the best start.