Road To Positional Success #3: Trophies and Bottlejobs.
The international break has come to an end, club football is back in motion. Where the Premier League will have talked about the 5–2 infamy in favour of West Brom, Spanish fans will have talked about two matches: The 2020 final played in 2021, and the infamy of Simeone’s team. What happened, really?
David Silva happened. La Real won the trophy, after 90 intense minutes of battling. What derby is more intense than the Basque Derby? I don’t know, you tell me. What I do know, is that neutral fans could not complain on that evening. The Basque Derby, in itself, is already exciting enough. Now add to that the possibility of winning silverware. I know, right? Nothing better, especially with a fit David Silva.
As soon as the game started, fans knew what to expect. Two teams, differentiated by their purposes. To attack or to defend? Sociedad picked the first, Bilbao the latter. Two teams, playing on their strengths. Strengths, that were the neighbor's weaknesses. Only one of them had seen the two camps: Iñigo Martinez, gone from Sociedad to Bilbao in 2018. Only he had seen it, though: In a real of rivalry, such moves are rare, controversial and sometimes almost dangerous. The Basque identity is not something to toy with.
It’s precisely Iñigo Martinez that had a splendid game, penalty or not. It’s him that is having a good run in the last few weeks. Aware of his surroundings, Martinez fits in the mold of the typical Bilbao player. On the other side, it’s David Silva, Zubimendi and Isak who proved to be key. To add to the mix of experience amid a relatively young squad (The youngest average fielded was ~23 years old, the oldest 27), Merino’s intelligence is one that was needed to win. Though Bilbao defended well, Marcelino’s team could not field a few passes before Sociedad intercepted it. A positional marking scheme, allowing La Real to regain possession quickly, proved to be successful. There’s little complaints any fan could have — bare the result, for Bilbao fans — with no clear winner. The first or the second half, this fixture never had one dominance. Bilbao’s defensive awareness is such, that finding spaces becomes hard, too hard. In transitions, you cannot catch them off-guard, as if they were born with eyes on their back. Unfortunately for Marcelino, it was one of those bad days that Williams had. A deserved 1–0 win, given that the last time Sociedad won a trophy, we were in 1987: Alguacil was only 15 years old, and I wasn’t even born. A nice reward, the rumored attacking football brand rather than a more careful and conservative approach seen in the last weeks.
Next. Bottle-jobs everywhere. Seriously, what’s wrong with Atlético?
Second question: is there really something going wrong?
If you scrolled through your Twitter feed yesterday evening, you will have read it: Atlético have “bottled” their lead, and Barcelona could go on to snatch the #1 place if they take the full three points against Valladolid tonight. Yesterday’s game was an opportunity, for Simeone & Co, to prove that they’re not done. That they can go on to continue leading the race. And instead, catastrophe after the international break. That break saw many players going on international duty, including the likes of Thomas Lemar, Koke and Joao Felix.
Instead of asking the question “Why are Atlético not leaders anymore?”, we should maybe ask ourselves the question: “Were they supposed to be leaders in the first place?”
One thing is certain, and that is that Sevilla cracked Atlético yesterday night. From the very first minutes, the likes of Fernando and Jordan were cruising part El Cholo’s first line of pressure. And that is not a new problem. Let’s go back to the beginning of the season.
We are in September. Barcelona have already dropped points in a 1–1 draw against Sevilla, Real are doing okay without any promise. Meanwhile, Simeone is trying out a more offensive system with less rigidity, letting Felix thrive along the majority of the group. Hermoso is having the form of his life. It’s impossible to determine for us whether Atlético had intended to become first, or whether that was a surprise. On my personal opinion that does not matter, it was a surprise. Segundo, Barcelona was at the peak of its institutional crisis when Bartomeu’s board resigned almost two months later, and a new president would only come from Amazon’s belated package in March. Atlético soon found themselves with a ten points lead. Whereas Barcelona & Madrid were far from doing well, Atlético were having the form of their life. Problem? To not crack. And Atlético cracked, in a nutshell.
Atlético are not born as a powerhouse. They are not ‘supposed’ to be favorites. They aren’t meant to be those that will get shouts as the best. Well, their football might unattractive, but they aren’t the biggest financially speaking. And perhaps, there’s more to football than tactics. Their case goes beyond strategy and touches mentality. In fact, their tactics do not suggest the most exciting team ever. They’re not that fancy-scoring-100-goals-a-season type of team. And that’s okay. Low blocks can work, but only for a limited time. When Zidane’s team won 2–0 over Simeone’s, something suggested they were going wrong: Where fans thought that Atlético had become more offensive, El Cholo opted for a rather conservative approach…the beginning of the end?
Though Atlético have over-performed on both ends in the first half of the season — may it be on goals scored, or goals conceded — they were bound to fall. The problem is not to fall, the problem is to sink. Though Atlético’s owners may be happy with ending at second or even third place again, most fans — especially the younger ones — won’t be. And the question remains: Will Simeone leave, on day. He’s one of the best paid coaches on the planet, but is it worth for Atlético?
At last, it’s not over. There’s a way out — Barcelona still have to face both Madrid’s. Assuming Barcelona will always win the three points is a bold assumption, especially with a season that is one of the shakiest in recent years. Barcelona are not as consistent anymore, nor are Real either. All three ‘top’ teams are in periods of transition, with no clear light at the end of tunnel. It remains, to be seen, whether Atléti can fight back, or, as most would expect, fall deeper.