Rebels without a cause: has title win taken away Atlético Madrid’s hunger?

Diego Simeone had pretty much seen it all but he had never seen this and he didn’t much like it either. It was 8.15 on a Tuesday night down by the side of the M45 motorway, the last move before half-time in the sixth game of Atlético Madrid’s title defence, and he stood and watched as Stefan Mitrovic’s header thudded off a post, off Jan Oblak’s hand and into the net. They were behind again – and to Getafe of all teams, the league champions losing at the worst side in the division. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. This was bad: it was also, Simeone later admitted, what they needed. It was a shock, that’s for sure.

The last time Getafe’s fans had been here, they had whistled their players off. Now, as they headed for the tunnel 1-0 up at half-time supporters stood and applauded. Back then, the touchline reporter on Spanish TV noted how they chanted the name of their under-pressure manager. Which was true, it’s just that the word Míchel was followed by two others: go and now. That night, last Monday against Elche, Getafe had produced 25 minutes as bad as anyone could remember, emotionally shot, legs wobbling, the manager lamenting a “mental block”. Then they had gone to Rayo Vallecano and let in three. “A lot’s happening, and it’s all going against us,” he said.

He could say that again, so last night he did. Míchel’s side had lost their opening five games, the first club to do that since his Málaga team four years earlier. They had only scored once. And now here they were beating Atlético Madrid, which would have been big anyway but it wasn’t that they were on course for a first win or even just their second goal of the season. It wasn’t even that they might beat Simeone’s team for the first time; it was that they had scored against them for the first time. It had taken until the 20th game. Getafe had not got a goal against Atlético in a decade, going back to Diego Castro, now at Perth Glory, in a 3-2 win in November 2011. Under Simeone, the aggregate score had been Atlético Madrid 34 Getafe nil.

Make that 34-1.

By the end, though, it didn’t feel like it meant much. In fact, for all that it was a glimpse of something good, something to cling to, for Getafe it might just have made defeat even crueller when it came, the hope they had briefly held taken from them and replaced by fatalism, the emotional damage deeper. “It’s familiar this season: you get the feeling you’ve seen this film before,” Míchel said after another defeat to a solitary goal against a big team, following 1-0 losses against Valencia and Sevilla and a 2-1 defeat at Barcelona, affected and hurt words he returned to. “When things are going badly, the hits come from all sides. This is part of what’s happening to us,” he said.

What happened to them was that Carlos Aleñá was sent off and Atlético came back to win 2-1, Luis Suárez scoring in the 78th minute and then getting the winner in the 90th. They had reacted: Suárez had seen one superb looping header come off the bar and watched David Soria make an exceptional double save. They had needed to. “Their goal made us see reality,” Simeone admitted afterwards.

And the reality is that something is not quite right yet: “There was a lack of intensity, of dynamism, the ball wasn’t circulated well, the game was flat,” Simeone admitted and nor was it only this game. Atlético had not scored in their previous two matches, 0-0 draws against Athletic and Porto. It wasn’t late, but they had needed a second-half goal to defeat Celta on the opening day. Against Elche the week after, it was an uninspiring 1-0. They needed a 95th-minute freak own goal to draw 2-2 with Villarreal having trailed twice. Against Espanyol, they won 2-1 with goals in the 79th and 99th – yes, 99th – minutes. Now they had done the same in the 90th.

This morning Atlético are top, but Simeone said: “We’re not where we would like to be.” Something is missing. Clarity, for a start. Some of that sense of collective destiny, too. Last season they relied on late goals – there have been few run-ins quite like it – always on edge, doing it the hard way, but this isn’t the same as then. This may be the best squad Atlético have had, it may even be the best in Spain, but it doesn’t yet feel like a team, a process of (re)adaptation still required, a mental state still to be slipped into. There are more pieces than before and Simeone is still looking for a way of making them all fit, a slight sense he’s trying almost too hard, formations shifting and not yet fully formed – even if it is possible to see a virtue in variety.

Marcos Llorente was arguably the most decisive player in La Liga last season, but he has been moved through various roles, often in the same game. There has been less fluidity or creativity and a vulnerability not there before. They have played with a three and a four, with full-backs and without them. Cunha hasn’t scored or started. João Félix was sent off against Athletic, having told the referee he was mad. Suárez looked sluggish, but then he sometimes did last season. There have been injuries: Koke, Thomas Lemar and Geoffrey Kondogbia were all missing on Tuesday night. Rodrigo de Paul has impressed, but hasn’t always started. And then there’s Antoine Griezmann, who has been squeezed in up front, off the front and in midfield but hasn’t scored yet, or had a shot on target. Atlético haven’t scored either while he’s been on the pitch.

“This is a new Atlético, which is not the one he left,” Simeone insisted, underlining a key point largely overlooked. Griezmann is not the same player as he was when he left either and this Atlético keep the ball more, combine more, play closer to goal than that one did. Or, at least, they are supposed to. That is what Suárez needs, Simeone says, and the Uruguayan was the catalyst for their shift up the pitch last season. In the second half on Tuesday night, for perhaps the first time, that is what Suárez got. “He may not have other things but when he’s in there, he’s one of the best in the world,” Mario Hermoso said.

“You all talk about the forwards. Well, I can explain that process,” Simeone said, and so he did. And there, things made a little more sense, a reminder that sometimes things just happen, a reminder too of the need to step back from the familiar trap of making definitive judgments from possibly temporary situations. Not just with Atlético, but with Getafe too. With everyone, in fact.

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“Cunha arrived not long ago and from the Olympics. Correa was the first to arrive, but then he went off for two weeks with the national team and now he is starting to re-acquaint himself with the play. Suárez came at the end and as he was starting to get up to speed, he had to have his [knee] cleaned. Obviously, that set back his preparation. And I said we had to be closer to the area,” Simeone said. “I don’t remember João Félix starting a game in four months; he’s recovered from an ankle issue and is close to returning fully but it’s not the best preparation. Antoine had the return to Atlético that he wanted so much and he’s in that process of adaptation, getting back to being the player he was for this team. But we’re lucky to have Griezmann with us and I have no doubt he’ll perform as we hope. We have to work, wait, and be prepared … anyone would have taken off Suárez today and he scored two goals.

“The gunslinger is back,” said the headlines. “Suárez is back being what he is” Simeone added. Atlético needed that. They needed to change above all. And there is something small, intangible that’s not quite the same right now, a hint of some lost hunger that lingered in the analyses. A hunger that, who knows, may have been reawakened by a decade-long run coming to an end. A glimpse of a worrying reality, a reminder of how easily it can all be taken away again.

Quick Guide

La Liga, 21-23 September


Tuesday Getafe 1–2 Atlético, Levante 0–2 Celta, Athletic 1–2 Rayo Vallecano 

Wednesday Espanyol v Alavés, Sevilla v Valencia, Real Madrid v Mallorca,  Villarreal v Elche 

Thursday Granada v Real Sociedad, Osasuna v Real Betis,  Cádiz-Barcelona  

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“We needed a change of attitude in the first half of games,” Hermoso said. “It can’t be that we go from an unrecognisable first half to the second. We don’t know if what’s happening at the start of games is attitude, preparation, reading the game … I think it’s attitude. The players have to step up, we’re practically the same group as last season and we’re the ones that go out there. We have the quality to turn games around but there will be days when it’s hard to do that.”

All of which invites another reflection: maybe the very fact of being champions changes things, removing a sense of rebellion or mission. “No, not at all,” Hermoso insisted. “You want to get that reward again. People say you get tired of winning: that’s false. Everyone wants to win, to lift trophies, but for that to happen there are loads of things that have to happen first. Preparation, training, attitude – that’s the foundation on which success is built. The desire to prove yourself every day. We’re not showing it now but I know every single one of the men in the dressing room. I know they want to change this and I’m sure they will because that’s the most beautiful thing in football and in life.”