European Football

2021/22 LaLiga Stories Part 3: Fallen Giants

The plight of Barcelona and Atlético Madrid…

In Part 2, we talked about Sevilla and Real Betis, the surprise title chargers who have taken LaLiga by storm and positioned themselves well within the top four places in the league. But when two places at the top open up for others, it means those top teams that usually occupy those places are no longer there. We already talked about Real Madrid, so we know which two have been left out…

…what in the world has happened to Barcelona and Atlético Madrid?

Well, with Barcelona, this is mostly treading over old ground. We have talked quite a bit about Barcelona’s financial and football-related struggles over the last year or two on this blog. Messi left, Koeman was sacked, Xavi was hired, Barça were knocked out of the Champions League and the Copa del Rey, and their overall league struggles has left them with a difficult fight in order to secure a Champions League birth next season, something that is usually a given with this team. They are currently fourth after their huge win over Atlético Madrid, but there is also only a seven point gap between their current position and 9th placed Rayo Vallecano. Yes, they have some positives, but a single slip up or return to previous poor form could derail the season completely. With the handicaps this season, despite the odd January transfer window business they did, it sure does feel like Xavi is facing down a significant challenge in Catalonia.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

“What is wrong with Barcelona?” is a very complex question, and while I have made many attempts to try and address it, I will not remotely begin to get into the complexities of the question here. What is wrong with them this season? Well, that is a more simple discussion regarding structure and balance, and a reliance upon (and likely need to eventually replace) certain players. Barça’s defense and midfield certainly are the most settled parts of the team structurally, but the still-lingering presence of Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, and Jordi Alba is going to be an issue eventually. Yes, the kids are starting to come through in some of those positions on the pitch, but Barça still have not moved on from the same veteran players who were teammates with their current manager when he was still a player. This team has needed to go into a true rebuild and refresh for a while now, and Messi leaving last summer has forced the issue upon them, but it is clear that there needs to be more changes made in order to reinvigorate this team.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

And now the one part of the pitch in which there is no structure, or really any idea of what Barcelona’s best combination of players looks like: the attack. Barcelona have used quite a few forwards this season, and they have utilized an absurd number of combinations within that front three even just under Xavi’s managerial tenure alone. With the additions of Ferran Torres, Adama Traoré, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the January Transfer Window, I believe Barça now have TEN first team forwards. Which is a lot. Now yes, Ansu Fati is once again injured, but nine is still an absurd number. And how many of those players do Barcelona actually want? How desperate are they?

Well, they have scored less goals than notably-defensive Atlético Madrid, as well as narrowly more than Sevilla, whom I claimed did not have the greatest attack of the top teams. Looking at just the number, it appears Barcelona are scoring enough goals, but it certainly has not felt like it at times when watching them play.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

But this absurd number and wild amount of combinations simply shows that Xavi, frankly, does not quite know what his best team is. They have experimented with systems and tactics, and they have experimented with personnel. While there is some semblance of order in the midfield and defense, Xavi has not figured out how to make that attack work, and that has resulted in the current reality where only one Barcelona player, Memphis Depay (who has only played twice since mid-December), has scored more than three league goals this season. It is a team that still looks dysfunctional, and it is a puzzle that Xavi still needs to solve. Given Barcelona’s current financial turmoil, qualifying for the Champions League next season is a requirement, and failure to do so would be nothing short of cataclysmic.

Is there much hope for Barça fans? Well, the young players are there. That is something.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

We all know about Pedri and Ansu Fati. Gavi has broken onto the scene this season and, despite some inconsistencies that can be natural for a kid his age, he does have moments where he looks every bit like a future superstar. Ronald Araujo, who was once a bit of an afterthought among the Barça youth, has now emerged to be maybe the best center back in this team and a likely spiritual heir to Piqué. The addition of Ferran Torres gives them another of the best young Spanish players currently out there right now, and he will likely be Ousmane Dembélé’s replacement. And on top of that, there have been a few players who have emerged from La Masia this season that at least look like they have a bit about them. Nico González looks like the one most likely to stick around, as he brings some of the technical skill needed to be a player at Xavi’s Barcelona while bringing quite a bit of the physicality and aggression that Barça do not have much of in their current midfield. The jury is still out on players like Ilias Akhomach and Ez Abde, but there have been some promising signs.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Maybe it is not all doom and gloom for Barça in the future? It is, however, been quite a bit of gloom and disappointment for them in the present.

While Barcelona’s struggles have been predictable and even a bit understandable, Atlético Madrid’s struggles have been absolutely unexpected. The reigning champions of Spain came into this season with arguably the best squad on paper in the competition, and many had the expectation that this team could become the first Spanish team not named Barcelona or Real Madrid to repeat as champions since Athletic Club did so in the early 1980s.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Instead, Atléti now find themselves well entrenched in the battle for fourth place and 17 points (though with a game in hand) behind league leaders and arch-rivals Real Madrid. Their form has been dire at times, uncharacteristic in many ways, and they had also suffered a four match losing streak for the first time under Diego Simeone’s management. That sounds fairly trivial, but it is groundbreaking when considering what the Argentine has overseen and just how long he has been there. While Real Madrid’s title is not guaranteed by any stretch, it is very likely that Los Colchoneros will not be the ones beating them to it. With Atléti also knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Real Sociedad, as well as eliminated from the Spanish Super Cup by Athletic Club and in a difficult, though admittedly not impossible, Champions League Round of 16 tie against Manchester United and their old friend Cristiano Ronaldo, it is very possible that a season once viewed with so much promise and potential could truly come crashing down around Cholo Simeone’s head.

So what has gone wrong for Atléti? Well, like with Barcelona, it is an issue of structure. Atléti’s attacking options got most of the headlines during the summer, as many figured that the array of tantalizing options would finally force an Atlético Madrid team that started coming out of their defensive shell last season to fully embrace some modern, dynamic attacking. Luis Suárez, Marcos Llorente, Ángel Correa, João Félix, and Yannick Carrasco were joined by Matheus Cunha and Antoine Griezmann in the summer. The options seemed endless, right? Well, it has not quite worked out for a similar reason as to Barcelona’s issues: Simeone just has not figured out how the pieces fit together.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

The reason why Atléti’s team worked so well going forward last season was due to Suárez, since a player of his skill but also advanced age (in football terms) and limited mobility meant Atléti could not play in that 4-4-2 counter-attacking style that defined previous Simeone teams. Having to start attacks further up the pitch, this allowed for players like Llorente and Correa and Thomas Lemar, who played very specific roles within that set up, to thrive and have their best seasons in the Spanish capital. This season, however, the introduction of new players and departure of others shifted the balance of the team. Llorente could now not play further forward due to midfield issues and the eventual departure of Kieran Trippier, defensive issues forced Yannick Carrasco to play more as a wingback than a wide attacker, and overall balance issues led to less opportunities for Suárez, who also has not been as good as he was last season.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

The return of Griezmann to Atléti is a microcosm of this identity issue. Griezmann is a brilliant player on his day, one that most teams would not turn down the opportunity to sign, but where does he play in this team? The role he played for Atléti prior to his move to Barcelona is now no longer there, and any move to a more traditional Simeone set up detracts from the ability of other players, namely Suárez, João Félix, and Llorente. Despite Atléti paradoxically being the joint-third highest scoring team in the league at the moment, these problems have still been very severe at times, and there have been one too many games where you watch Simeone’s team play and wonder where the goals, or any sort of attacking nous, will come from.

And that is not even the biggest problem. Atléti’s soul, the backbone of their ideology under Simeone, has been a strong defense. They usually are the best or among the best defensive teams in LaLiga almost every season, and their title winning teams have been elite when it comes to not conceding goals. Last season, they only conceded 25 goals in 38 games on their way to the league title. This season, through only 22 games, they have conceded 30 goals. The defense is a massive problem in all areas.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

It has been a disappointing season for the likes of José María Giménez, Mario Hermoso, and Felipe, while injury to Stefan Savić removed their one actual reliable center back. Kieran Trippier’s January departure to Newcastle removed maybe their most important defensive player, and usually-world-class goalkeeper Jan Oblak has looked like a shadow of his former self this season, amassing a number of crucial mistakes that are normally so uncharacteristic for the man affectionately dubbed the “Oblaktopus”. This problematic defense also seems to be the sign that Thomas Partey’s departure is finally coming back to haunt Atléti, as Koke’s ability to deputize well as a defensive midfielder last season has not quite carried over to this season. If Simeone and the club’s hierarchy had the benefit of foresight when they were working on their transfer strategy this past summer, they likely would have targeted a center back or defensive midfielder instead of more forwards.

They have done work to address these issues in the January window, however, and this is certainly something that can give Atléti supporters some hope. Daniel Wass, signed from Valencia, and Reinildo Mandava, signed from reigning French champions Lille, are both adept at playing in defensive positions. Wass is a natural midfielder, but he has also deputized as a right back for Valencia over the years, and his ability to play both positions well will not quite replace the influence of Trippier, but it will hopefully do enough to reinforce the defense and midfield while liberating Marcos Llorente from some of the defensive duties. Reinildo is a natural left back, a player whose energy and aggression should suit Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid perfectly. He is also a much more defensively adept left back, especially when compared to current Atléti left back Renan Lodi, so he should be able to cover some of the defending and free up Yannick Carrasco. Simeone will hope that these signings add a little more steel and solidity to the defense and actually allow his attacking players to attack.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Is there anything else to cling on to for hope? Well, I am not quite sure. Atléti’s 3-2 come from behind win over Valencia prior to this past international break sure seemed like a turning point for their season, a moment where the team finally banded together, embraced that Cholismo-esque mentality of winning through suffering, and worked hard to overcome a difficult situation and succeed. This was then followed by their 4-2 defeat to Barcelona last weekend, a largely embarrassing and spineless affair where all of the lessons learned from the Valencia game were seemingly thrown out the window. It is even more perplexing when looking at Simeone himself, who appeared to have learned quite a bit about his players from the Valencia game and responded by picking the exact same team and rolling out the exact same tactical plan that dug the hole in the Valencia game, only to have to make the same halftime changes from that game but only this time facing a much more insurmountable 4-1 deficit instead of a more manageable 2-0.

If Simeone and Atléti are going to salvage anything from this season, and if they are going to get the Champions League qualification they desperately need, they will need to hope their new signings sort some of the defensive issues out while also pushing Matheus Cunha and Ángel Correa as far as they can. Those are two forwards who are effective while working for the team and fitting what Simeone needs. Cunha has not quite been at a consistently high level this season, but he has shown his potential in flashes. Correa, quite frankly, needs to start every game from here until the end of the season, even if it means benching one of Carrasco or Félix. The fact that Correa, who won LaLiga Player of the Month for January, was on the bench instead of Félix, who has mostly been a hinderance for Atléti for at least the last year now, is maybe Simeone’s biggest mistake from the Barcelona loss. Atléti are too talented to be in the situation they are in now, but they clearly lack the cohesion, structure, and understanding that they had last season. I do not know what happened to cause that, but it is clear that Simeone has some difficult decisions to make between now and the end of the season.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

While the struggles of both Barça and Atléti are laid bare for all to see, the beauty of football and the beauty of our current situation in the league is that there is still plenty of football left to be played. While there will likely be significant questions for both teams to answer this summer, there is still the distinct possibility that both teams finish in the top four this season. There is also the distinct danger that both finish outside of the top four and, as a result, miss out on the Champions League. The run in to the end of the season will be crucial for both teams.

What about the other teams in that European fight? We will look at one of them and the unique story within that team in Part 4.

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