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Atlético Madrid Is Enjoying Life In Bizarro World

Antoine Griezmann of Atletico Madrid celebrates after scoring his team's third goal during the UEFA Champions League match between Atletico Madrid and Celtic FC at Civitas Metropolitano Stadium on November 7, 2023 in Madrid, Spain.
Photo by Manuel Reino/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

If you stick around at a club for as long as Diego Simeone has at Atlético Madrid, evolution eventually becomes a necessity. Keeping a job in the long term requires sustained success, and sustained success is only possible when the blueprint that first achieved it grows and changes to respond to the new demands success engenders.

This evolutionary process has been where Simeone has struggled during the latter parts of his 12 years at the helm. The lower-than-low block, the bastardly defending, and the long and isolated counter attacks of cholismo 1.0 were outrageously successful for the Atleti teams that, between 2012 and 2018, won the Copa del Rey, the league title, the Europa League, and twice reached the Champions League final. But as time has gone on, it's been difficult for the club to sustain that physically and mentally demanding style of play.

There have been exceptions, most notably the revitalized cholismo of the 2020-21 season that won enough rock fights to heroically lift another La Liga trophy. In the main, however, the Colchoneros' famous defensive steeliness has weakened, and its attack has been unable to compensate. The major question facing Atlético for years now has been whether Simeone, the man most responsible for transforming a historically underperforming club into the continental giant it has now become, was the right manager to lead Atleti as it solidified its evolution from David into Goliath.

For Atlético fans who surely dreaded the prospect of seeing their beloved Cholo leave, this season must feel like euphoria. At last, Simeone seems to have hit upon a new-look Atleti that better fits what the club is today. Surprisingly, this new team is close to the exact opposite of the Atléticos of old. Whereas the golden-age Atleti built its foundations on what it did without the ball, this team is all about what its bevy of attack-minded players do with the ball. The discrepancy from then to now can be a bit jarring—Atlético has more 3-2 wins (2) than 1-0 wins (0) this season—but when it all comes together, as it did in the team's six-goal romp over Celtic in the Champions League on Tuesday, you really get the sense that Atleti has entered a new, exhilarating era.

Let's not gloss over that scoreline. A team coached by Diego Simeone won a game 6-0! Traditionally, if someone had told me Atleti did something in a match six times to an opponent's zero, I'd probably think it referred to six leg-breaking slide tackles. It is true that Celtic is Celtic, and that the Scottish team played more than an hour down a man after Daizen Maeda's red card in the 23rd minute. But the attacking voracity on display in Tuesday's win extends far beyond the particular circumstances of the match itself.

The conductor of the blowout was, as always, Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman has never played better soccer than he is right now, which is saying something. The elegance of his game by itself makes him a marvel. There's so much technical virtuosity in his every touch. When you throw in the speed of his thinking—he's much more of a thinker than a creator—it means he constantly finds solutions to problems and ways to progress play regardless of how much or how little time or space the opponent grants him. But for all the refinement of his game with the ball, it's the way he couples that with a center back's cussedness when defending that makes him such a unique player. Griezmann plays as if before he steps onto the pitch he buttons up a dress shirt, fastens his cummerbund, knots his bowtie, slips into his tuxedo pants and jacket, and then laces up his Timberlands and grabs his hard hat. He's maybe the only player in the world who could put together the kind of stat line he had against Celtic: six shots, two goals, five key passes, and two successful sliding tackles.

Accompanying Griezmann on Tuesday was Álvaro Morata, who has emerged as a surprisingly trusty sidekick. Morata has long been a more impressive player in theory than in practice. He has all the conditions of a difference-making striker, which is why teams have spent a collective €190 million acquiring his services over the course of his career. But there's always been just enough missing in his game that prevented the impressive individual aspects of his talent from gelling into something as powerful as portended.

He's fast enough, got a soft enough touch, can facilitate play with his back to goal, and has a keen eye for goal in certain situations. He's great at attacking crosses, and can really finish when shooting first-time. But he can't make a goal on his own, and the more time he has to think, the more belabored and anxious his decision-making gets. (It's telling that searching "morata miss compilation" on Youtube turns up at least a dozen different videos.) He works well at speed, on the run, when his deep hunger to succeed can rush him into goals he would otherwise flub when paralyzed by choice. But the best teams need players who thrive when play is slow, muddy, and stressful, which is why Morata historically hasn't caught on anywhere for more than a season or two.

Until now, that is. The start of this season has been the most fruitful stretch of Morata's career so far. (Discounting that one stat-warping season he spent as Real Madrid's super-sub.) Maturity (he's now 31 years old) and a settled spot in both the Spain and Atlético lineups seem to have given him a newfound confidence that has cured the yips that once plagued him. Now, he can be content knowing Griezmann will do all of the articulating of the play, freeing Morata to focus on holding up the ball, offloading it to Griezmann, and then sprinting into the box where someone will lump in the crosses and cutbacks he's always known how to dispatch. The two goals the Spanish striker scored against Celtic brought his Champions League tally to five, and his overall number to 12 goals in 14 matches. I don't expect him to maintain a nearly goal-a-game pace all season, but there is good reason to think Morata really has turned a corner for good.

There are of course more standout players in this Atlético bunch. Koke has settled nicely into his deeper position in midfield, where he organizes play with aplomb. Rodrigo De Paul is finally playing as well as many always thought he would when he joined the club in 2021. Rodrigo Riquelme and Samuel Lino (the latter of whom scored a real worldie against Celtic) have between them combined well to fill the important and tricky wing-back/forward hybrid role Yannick Carrasco was so great at. Axel Witsel and Mario Hermoso have formed a surprisingly stable center back pairing—surprising because Witsel is a natural midfielder and Hermoso really struggled last year in the same important and tricky center/left back hybrid role he's currently thriving in. (The team's defending as a whole is mighty shaky though, and is in fact the team's clear weak point.) Nahuel Molina is one of the best attacking right backs in the world, which may not come as a shock to those of you who remember the great goal he scored for Argentina against the Netherlands in the World Cup.

But for years now Atlético has had the pieces to put together a very good attacking team. What's different today is that Simeone has found a way to incorporate it all into a system that has moved away from his usual defensive-mindedness and toward a more offensive outlook. To an extent, it's as simple as letting all the good guys get together. Before, Atleti teams were placed in a rigid positional setup that gave the players strict instructions about where to be and how to behave. The players were supposed to sit very deep and defend their marked plots of land, and, upon regaining possession, chuck the ball forward as fast as possible, where the two or three players with license to attack would try to make a counter-attack goal without much support from the others.

This Atleti plays much looser. Simeone now asks the players to keep hold of the ball and unite several teammates around it, so that the ball carrier always has several options nearby to exchange passes and collaborate on a move to bring the play closer to the goal. Short passes, intricate, spontaneous movements in support, timely forward runs to invade empty spaces—this is the flowing possession style upon which Simeone has forged his new Atlético. It does not seem to be a coincidence that the style of play bears marked similarities to what Lionel Scaloni has brought (back) to the Argentina national team. Simeone may have been watching his compatriots conquer the world last winter out of more than simple fandom.

It's worth reiterating that Celtic isn't Real Madrid, and a one-off six-goal barnstormer does not a revolution make. But the Celtic game wasn't just a fluke. Atleti's and Manchester City's 12 goals are the most scored in the Champions League so far this year. In La Liga, the Colchoneros have scored more than both Barcelona and Real, their 26 goals through 11 matches trailing only the 29 scored by table-topping Girona (you read that right)—and that's with Atleti having a game in hand on those other three. In fact, the Celtic result wasn't even Atlético's highest-scoring match of the season, falling one behind the seven they put past Rayo Vallecano in the league opener. And if the lowly competition of those two blowouts still makes you skeptical, then you should know that Atleti beat Real 3-1 earlier this season, too.

We've truly reached a new day in Rojiblanco soccer. For once, it is Diego Simeone's defense that is the weak link, while the attacks are sleek, plentiful, and lots of fun. You can be sure that Atlético Madrid will fight like hell to win all the competitions it's in this year, just as the team has for these past 12 years that have made for easily the best era of the club's history. Yet they will do so in a different way than before, and that newness very well could be what takes them over the top now and going forward.

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