Since Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid faced off in Jeddah for the SuperCopa final, both teams have seemingly headed into opposite directions (as we’ll discuss below). Atletico have been hit by more injuries and bad results, and have spiralled behind in the league table. Having already been eliminated from one major trophy, they may get hit hard again later in February when they face Liverpool.
The 7 - 3 in New York seems a distant memory now.
Helping me set up this weekend’s Derby is Jeremy Beren of IntoTheCalderon. Later this week Om Arvind will be answering questions over on their site, so make sure to look out for that. They’ll also be doing a post-game show on Sunday on their podcast, Colchonero Chat.
Kiyan: Wow. We meet again. And to think, so much has happened in the little time since we last did this Q&A just 20 days ago. You lost to Real Madrid in another penalty shootout final, then you bounced in the Copa del Rey to Cultural Leonesa, and now it looks like Joao Felix will miss the derby. You’re now 10 points back of first place in La Liga, and have (probably temporarily) dropped out of the Champions League zone. Uh, how are you doing, man?
Jeremy: I’m doing great! This is great, it’s been awesome. I’m not mad, I’m laughing actually.
No but the SuperCopa final loss seems to have done something to this team, a really bad something. Atlético poured so much into that match only to come up empty-handed, and the results since have not been pretty — shelled by Eibar, deservedly knocked out of the cup by Cultural, held by a Leganés team that is probably going down.
João is indeed out with a right leg injury, yet another muscular issue for a team which has been hit with a ton of them in the past year. José Giménez and Kieran Trippier will miss out Saturday with their own muscular problems. Koke and his hamstring are touch-and-go. But what is most concerning is that this team looks really low on confidence — and that lack of inspiration is why more blame has fallen on Simeone’s shoulders than ever before.
Kiyan: In Joao’s absence, what’s the set up going to be like?
Jeremy: I’m fairly certain Simeone will play a Herrera-Thomas-Saúl-Koke (if he’s healthy) midfield and partner Ángel Correa with Alvaro Morata up top. That duo linked up well earlier in the season and keyed Morata’s best scoring run since he arrived at Atlético. Koke being fit is obviously preferable so that Atleti’s midfield doesn’t just melt when Toni Kroos takes three steps forward — and so that Vitolo can stay on the bench until he’s needed in the second half.
Kiyan: I know we’ve had multiple chats about this over the years, but the topic isn’t going away anytime soon — and it’s only going to get more complicated the more it lingers: Has Simeone taken this team as far as he possibly can? Do you need a fresh brand of football?
Jeremy: Short answers: yes and yes.
I’m finding it more and more difficult to define and justify what’s going on here. Atlético are playing the same way even with a new group of players clearly not suited to playing this style, and it’s getting even harder to watch. Last summer’s €250 million outlay has brought back 22 goals from 21 league games. João Félix is frustrated and now injured, while Thomas Lemar is constantly worried about making mistakes — that’s €200m of talent struggling to meet Simeone’s demands.
I’ve defended Simeone a lot over the past two years, because even as those aging teams weren’t so fun to watch, they got results and won a couple trophies. You always knew a rebuild was on the horizon and figured he would have a plan. You assumed the team would always bring it, that a Round-of-32 cup game would mean the same as a Madrid Derby away. Now, it’s hard to know what the plan is. Cholo is more stubborn than ever, and truly for the first time I feel a new group of voices is needed — from the coach, to the technical staff, to the medical staff. The board might be feeling the same way.
Kiyan: This might sting a little, but something that’s grown apparent over the course of the season is how much Atleti miss Antoine Griezmann. He had that bail-out factor in years’ past, ensuring you could get the 1-0 results when the team wasn’t creating many chances. How do you begin to replace him?
Jeremy: You replace him slowly and by committee. It took Real Madrid a full season to figure out how to compensate for Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure — despite the difference in quality between Ronaldo and Griezmann, Atlético face the same issue.
Early in the season we saw Trippier and Thomas Partey run the show. Morata went on a tear in October and Correa has put together his best season to date. But injuries and a lack of squad depth eventually led to Félix being asked to play like Grizi — up to and including tracking back and making clearances while taking on chief playmaking responsibilities. That’s a role the 20-year-old was not ready for and is not ready for, and it may not even be his best role. It will probably take another system, another coach and another round of investment to develop him further and surround him with some more quality.
Kiyan: How confident are you going into that Liverpool game?
Jeremy: Not very. Liverpool are dominating a weak Premier League, but that team is still the continent’s best along with this Real Madrid side in my estimation. In their present form, the mattress makers won’t offer much of a challenge. If a few guys get healthy — remember Diego Costa? He’s still around — those first 90 minutes at least could be pretty tight. I think Atlético keep the result at least respectable.
Kiyan: Prediction for the Derby this weekend?
Jeremy: I don’t think I’ve ever predicted a Real Madrid win before, and I’m tempted to. But I won’t start now. 0-0.