Champions League reaction - Atletico Madrid's exit exposes the work Diego Simeone still has to do
Defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League last 16 proved Diego Simeone's side are still a work-in-progress, despite being on course for their first La Liga title in seven years. Atletico Madrid were underwhelming in both legs against Thomas Tuchel's team as they find themselves in ideological no-man's land between what they once were and what they aspire to be.
'Chelsea were better than us' - Atletico boss Simeone on defeat
The Champions League has never really been Atletico Madrid’s tournament. Of course, they made two finals in three years between 2014 and 2016, but even those occasions ended in sporting tragedy as Diego Simeone’s side lost both to rivals Real Madrid, in one having led until the very last seconds of normal time.
Nonetheless, the manner of Atletico Madrid’s performance in both legs revealed a lot about a team that is still something of a work-in-progress. Progress has been made this season, as illustrated by the position of Simeone’s side in the La Liga table, but this group of players is still missing something.
When Atleti needed to take the game to Chelsea, they struggled to find the control to do that. Koke and Saul Niguez were overwhelmed in the centre of the pitch, while Joao Felix and Luis Suarez had the supply line from the wide areas cut off to them. Chelsea suffocated the visitors through their use of the ball.
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The opening 15 minutes suggested Atletico take a more proactive approach to a game they needed to win, having lost the first leg at home 1-0, but even then Chelsea found a way to pass around them, claiming a 75% share of possession. It mattered little what the Spaniards did off the ball.
Simeone en rueda de prensa previa al Eibar-Atlético
Image credit: From Official Website
Simeone has more than once noted the need to evolve Atleti into a more expansive, dynamic team. His ‘Cholismo’ philosophy still underpins everything, but signings like Felix point to a desire to be something more. Many believe it’s time to move away from the underdog spirit the team were renowned for.
However, this has left Simeone’s side in ideological no-man’s land. There was no display of free-flowing, attacking football in either leg against Chelsea, nor was there the dogged conservatism to grind out a result. The trademark dark arts were still there, but Stefan Savic’s elbow into the chest of Antonio Rudiger, which saw him sent off, didn’t get Atleti anywhere.
The underwhelming performances produced by Spain’s representatives in this season’s Champions League have raised questions over the quality of La Liga at this moment in time, and it is certainly true that the division, at least at the top level, has been stronger in years gone by.
Marcos Alonso and Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea) trying to get the ball from Joao Félix (Atlético Madrid)
Image credit: Getty Images
Barcelona and Real Madrid are both in the midst of generational transitions, and this has presented an opportunity to Atletico domestically. They are the closest thing to a coherent team unit at the top end of La Liga right now, but they too have to find answers to some questions. Atleti are not yet the adaptable, multi-edged team Simeone wants.
Of course, the failure to make it past the Champions League round of 16 won’t matter much if Atletico Madrid go on to clinch the Spanish title. Having spent the majority of their history beneath La Liga’s big two clubs, beating Barcelona and Real Madrid remains the guiding light for Simeone and his players. They are still well-placed to do this, even if their lead at the top of the table has narrowed recently.
But if the grand plan is to turn Atletico into a true European superpower, and not just domestic champions, they still have some way to go. Even after all this time, the Champions League still isn’t their tournament.