Diego Simeone has to be in reflection mode, particularly following Saturday’s loss at Athletic Bilbao.
With the Champions League run over early this season after a Round of 16 exit, Atlético Madridhave a chance to experiment and learn what they have for the 2019/20 season.
Barcelona are all but running away with LaLiga this season, as the Catalans are 10 points clear after five straight wins and another Atlético loss on Saturday. Real Madrid are only two points behind Atleti in second, but the team’s current position — safely in the Champions League places — gives Diego Simeone and the team a chance to experiment with tactics and truly understand the talent available in this squad. If this part of the season is approached correctly, los colchoneroscan make the best moves in the upcoming summer transfer window while also developing young players.
First off, Diego Godín should play sparingly if at all. He may be the team captain, but he is aging and already on his way to Inter Milan — all that’s missing is the official announcement of his free transfer to Serie A. José Giménez and Stefan Savić deserve the time at center back to strengthen their partnership there.
Something must also be done about the injuries, especially in defense. Atlético need to look to their training staff as well as their style of play to understand why Lucas Hernández, Filipe Luisand others have missed so much time this season. With a squad as thin as this one, Simeone cannot expect to contend for multiple titles with over 40 injuries sustained this season.
The team had clicked well in five straight victories as Cholo introduced a somewhat more dynamic style, including trying Saúl on the right in addition to incorporating Álvaro Morata. So Atlético may not have much to change from that group, but it is also important to realize what went wrong against Juventus. Juanfran had mixed results against Cristiano Ronaldo, defending him expertly in the Metropolitano before contributing to the striker’s second leg hat trick.
Suspensions in that match for Thomas Partey and Diego Costa forced Thomas Lemar into the lineup and he again did not live up to his €70 million summer fee. Simeone must try him all over the pitch, including perhaps at striker and even out of position at center midfield. He can also offer him different partnerships with Morata on the right as opposed to his normal position with Antoine Griezmann on the left. However, it could be that Atlético choose to move on from Lemar — perhaps parting with him for pennies on the dollar.
Nonetheless, this is where Vitolo steps in. The 29 year-old has started just three matches this season and deserves much more of a runout. In 2016/17, his best season at Sevilla, he notched six goals and six assists with a less-talented squad.
Finally, Simeone also has a chance to work in some of the youth players, namely Francisco Montero, Andrés Solano and Mikel Carro.
Montero and Solano have seen action already, while Carro was named to the bench against Juventus. Simeone also handed debuts to attackers Borja Garcés and Viíctor Mollejo this season, so he clearly sees something in these players. Now is as good a time as any to run them out.
The 10-point gap to the top means Atlético can throw caution to the wind somewhat — though it is also important to hold on to second place for bragging rights over Real Madrid. Nevertheless, their cushion in the UCL places gives them a unique opportunity to really understand the 2018/19 squad. With the right moves, they can retool and make a real run in 2020.