Interview: Can Atletico Madrid retain their La Liga title this season?

Craig Hanson 10 months ago

We check in with the experts to talk about Griezmann, De Paul, Simeone, Saul and much more!

It's been a mixed start to the season for Diego Simeone's men, not disastrous by any stretch, but not stellar either. They find themselves currently in fourth position, four points behind city rivals Real Madrid at the top of La Liga. In the Champions League, back-to-back defeats against Liverpool have left them third in Group B, one point behind second placed Porto. They will probably need to do better than the 0-0 draw they played out with the Portuguese in their last encounter when the two face each other in their final group game. Anything but a win at home to Milan in mid week could put them in real danger of dropping out in the group stage for the first time since 2018.

One key issue for Los Colchoneros this season is drawing too many games. The stalemate in the Champions League was frustrating and in La Liga they've dropped points a few too many times. In fairness they've had a challenging run of fixtures in recent weeks. Since their surprising loss to Alaves back in September, El Cholo's men have gone unbeaten in six while playing only one team from outside the top ten. That team, bottom side Levante, managed to deny Atleti all three points by snatching a 2-2 draw, despite being down to ten men. The other five they faced were all top half teams. Avoiding defeat against those opponents is laudable but 2-2 and 3-3 draws with Real Sociedad and Valencia respectively will have annoyed Simeone, especially the way in which his players let a two goal lead slip during injury time at the Mestalla.

The team seem to be struggling for consistency and are perhaps lacking organisation and solidity. We wondered what exactly are the reasons for some of these results in the league and in Europe. We also wanted to know how Griezmann is getting on after returning to the club this summer, how new signing Rodrigo De Paul is fitting in, and how optimistic the fans are about retaining the title this season.

To get the answers to these questions, we spoke to some people who follow the club a lot more closely than we do. Thanks to Levi, admin at Atletico Universe, Kieran Canning, football correspondent for AFP and Robbie Dunne, sports journalist at AS English, for giving us their insights. Here's what they had to say:

Q. Has the style of play changed since the reintroduction of Antoine Griezmann? What impact has he had, either positive or negative on the makeup of the team?

Levi: Atletico Madrid haven't had a consistent style yet for various reasons - new signings, injuries and fitness issues due to Euros/Copa America. The idea is pretty much the same as last season, implementing a 'three at the back' formation to control games. Griezmann had to adapt to the current makeup and not the other way around. Despite a slow start, he's been a difference-maker in the last few games. Now, all he needs is the consistency to keep it up. Antoine, being his natural self, had an impact on the dressing room as he brings nothing but a positive vibe.

Q. How is Rodrigo De Paul settling in? He was incredibly hyped up prior to his signing. Does he look like he'll live up to expectations?

Levi: De Paul has adjusted well and looks set to deliver on the initial expectations, if not exceed them. Under Simeone, players usually take some time to adapt but De Paul has been a natural fit since day one, which came as a surprise. His best performance, for me, came against Real Betis and the hype seems justified at the moment. If he keeps improving as he has game by game, he could reach an even more exciting level.

Q. As we close in on ten years for Diego Simeone at the club, is there any thought to his eventual departure? Are there any mutterings about him potentially leaving in the coming years?

Kieran: There was a spell around 2017 when it seemed there would be a parting of the ways, but since then there has been a realisation on both sides that the agreement works well for all parties. Simeone is by far the highest paid manager in world football (24m euro net a year), something he wouldn't get elsewhere. There are also doubts as to how well his style would transition to another club and we've even seen that with Atletico in recent seasons where they've bought a lot more attacking, creative players without great success - Joao Felix, Thomas Lemar prior to this season, De Paul. For Atletico, Champions League money is now taken as a given which it certainly was not in the pre-Simeone era. He's signed a contract to 2024 and at the moment there are no signs of him leaving anytime soon.

Q. What do you make of Saul's loan spell at Chelsea? Could there be a way back into the fold for him in January or next summer?

Kieran: Saul is a strange one as he was such a key player in some of the Simeone's best seasons around 2015-16. It could have been a situation where he just needed a change of scenery and a fresh challenge but going to Chelsea for that never seemed a great idea, as he was far from guaranteed minutes. The muted swap earlier in the summer of Saul and Griezmann might have been better for all parties. In short I can't seen him making much of an impression at Chelsea as he hasn't so far, even with injuries to Kante and Kovacic. He's also a different style of player to them, much more box-to-box at his best and Chelsea work so well under Tuchel with two more conservative sitters that allows the front three plus the two wing-backs to bomb on.

Q. What was the general reaction among fans to the games against Liverpool, and is there still optimism that the club could do something good in the Champions League this season?

Robbie: It’s a strange feeling, really, in that Atlético have been talked up as having the best squad in Spain but continue to confuse people on a weekly basis. One week, they look excellent and the next week, they’re drawing with a relegation contender. I think everyone is waiting for everything to click for Atlético, but there’s also a common acceptance that the Premier League sides are the cream of the crop at the moment. I think most Atlético fans would accept another La Liga and forget about the Champions League but as a fan, you never really give up that hope.

Q. As we stand just over a quarter of the way into the La Liga campaign, what do you make of the team's performances so far and are you optimistic about Atletico retaining the title?

Robbie: On paper, yes, I think Atlético have the talent to retain La Liga but Simeone has a lot of things to fix first. He has several small problems with his squad rotation and finding the right pieces of the puzzle. Defensively, Atlético are having problems too and while those are not terminal at the moment, they could snowball and come back to haunt Atlético. He has some leeway with everyone else dropping points around him but at some point, they have to put a run of wins together and so far this season they have proven themselves incapable of doing that.

Next up for Atletico Madrid it's a midweek Champions League clash with Milan on Wednesday. They will hope to beat the bottom side and move into the top two places in the group, but given the Italian side's form in Serie A that won't be easy. Following that they take a trip to relegation threatened Cadiz in La Liga on Sunday, desperate for a win to apply some pressure to their rivals at the top of the league. It's difficult to predict how the season is going to pan out for Atletico, but it's clear to see that they have the talent and the potential in the squad to compete properly in both competitions, if they can find some consistency.

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