When greatness becomes pallid, when the extraordinary becomes extremely ordinary, it’s almost always a hard story to tell.
The reason that Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is still famous today, the one where the king loses sight of reality and is conned by weavers into wearing nothing at all yet the kingdom’s subjects prolong his humiliation by saying nothing, isn’t just to teach us a lesson about the societal urge to fawn at the feet of the high and mighty. One part of this morality tale also explains that it can feel awkward, ungrateful, even opportunistic, to shout “Take a look in the mirror!” when the once-majestic has become myopic, muddled and middling.
Which, of course, brings us to: the Madrid derbi, the state Atletico Madrid are in, the racism aimed at Vinicius Jr., how Emperor Diego Simeone is performing and how soon someone, like the brutally honest child in the Danish fable will shout out: “Cholo’s got no clothes on!” Please don’t be fooled by Madrid’s single-goal victory margin from Sunday’s heated, sometimes spectacular, but disturbing derbi Madrileno.
Atleti were largely atrocious. Again.
The short-sighted, the misguidedly loyal, those who fear change, and those who quake at paying off Simeone’s eight figure annual salary multiplied by the 20 months remaining on his contract (approximately €33m if there’s not a specified, lower, rescission clause amount) will point out that Atleti’s two best defenders, Stefan Savic and Jose Maria Gimenez, were missing.
They’ll bluster that Los Rojiblancos won this derbi at the Metropolitano only last May. That the home side had an energetic first 15 minutes on Sunday. They’ll say: “Can’t you see the beauty of his ermine and how finely tailored Cholo’s robes actually are?” They’ll say: “Can’t you be satisfied with previous [trophy] magnificence?”
But calling out the current decrepit state of Atleti’s match sharpness, match stamina, tactics, defending, attention to detail, competitiveness, mentality, creativity, injury prevention, playing system and player morale doesn’t come solely from this defeat during which the 2021 champions were limp, bewildered, third best in a two-horse race and, ultimately, were even gifted their consolation goal.
This pallid attitude, this loss which already leaves them eight points behind Madrid after only six matches, is representative of an alarming decline. It requires to be a turning point. Cholo Simeone’s postmatch assessment like many managers under pressure, bore little actual relationship to what happened.
The hard fact is that at no stage after Rodrygo ruthlessly scored Aurelien Tchouameni’s brilliantly crafted pass for the opening goal in the 15th minute, did Atleti truly believe they could win. No urgency, no forcefulness — scant self belief.
Simeone’s hugely enjoyable, deeply significant and undeniably historic reign at Atleti has been predicated on aggressive self belief, talented players squeezing every last drop of effort out of themselves, red-and-white-striped footballers making it utterly horribly for opposition to play against them, ultra-stingy defending and a genuine, palpable, idea that “We fear nobody; blink for a second and we will haul you down whoever you are.”
Compared to that, the central identity of the past 11 years of Atleti is completely unrecognisable. Rivals look on them as easy pickings. Last season almost half of LaLiga conceded fewer goals than them (including Getafe who finished a point off relegation). Atleti’s players look confused, half-hearted, out-of-form and leaden athletically.
The coach appears both uncertain and frail tactically — unsure of the personnel in his best XI, even more deeply unsure about which formation can make Atleti formidable again. (Simeone trained all week in a 5-3-2, started that way, then changed to a 4-4-2 five minutes into the match which was 12 minutes before Madrid sliced through them to go 1-0 up!)
Only five times in the past 59 competitive matches have Atleti gone one goal behind and still won. Hugely decreased ability to bounce back. Last season, they lost three consecutive matches (Madrid, Sevilla, Granada) for the first time since their Argentinian guru took over in December 2011.
This latest defeat means that they’re in danger of losing three straight home matches for the first time in Simeone’s previously admirable tenure. (The fact that the next home rival is lowly Girona would make that ultra-catastrophic if it came to pass).
These criticisms, and there are many more, need to be put in context of how talented, how deep and how expensively assembled a squad Atleti possess. To be fair to Simeone, in two ways, it shouldn’t be forgotten that, last season, they beat the soon-to-be Italian champions away from home and also won at Old Trafford and in Porto.
Nor should it be thought that the general malaise is only Simeone’s fault. His fitness coach guru, Oscar Ortega, isn’t cutting the mustard, hasn’t for a long time. The return to Madrid of Antonio Pintus, sparking Los Blancos’ utterly amazing capacity to win or seal big games late on, has highlighted this.
It’s clear that Simeone is unimpressed with some of the club’s most recent signings. It’s equally clear that El Cholo and Joao Felix enjoy what LaLiga TV’s match commentator Pete Jenson called “a marriage of inconvenience.” The club still love the talented Portuguese, but Cholo would much rather get rid of him and find a new version of the young Diego Costa.
In practical terms, what Atleti do about their coach’s situation might eventually be heavily influenced by a board debate over “which horse do we back here? Our record €126m transfer investment who’s still only 22 … or the guy to whom we pay over €20m a season and who’s currently serving up tepid football?”
One litmus test, for you, not just the men who rule at Atleti, is to consider: “If Simeone had come from a team showing the form, attitude and competitiveness which Atleti have shown over the last 16 months would he have been hired back in 2011?” Or: “Will Simeone’s replacement, whenever that comes, get the job having shown the equivalent of Atleti’s form over the last year and a half?”
If you’re honest, the answer is crystal clear.
Recent witnesses at training have heard Simeone roaring at his players: “You earn big salaries … work harder … anyone who doesn’t want to be here doesn’t have to be here.” Not cutting-edge stuff.
There’s something else indicative of the great slough in which this usually vital, inspirational, likeable and ultra-hungry man finds himself. Look at his playing record. Not just what he won, but what those trophies and his arrival at the club signified. When Simeone was Rojiblancos’ midfield enforcer, Atleti won the league and cup double in 1995-96 — they’d never achieved that before and haven’t since.
It was Atleti’s first Spanish Liga title in 19 years. Something not repeated until he became coach. At Inter, he helped them lift the UEFA Cup — only their third trophy in nine years. It took another 12 years for the Nerazzurri to win another European trophy. At Lazio, the Roman club had only won three trophies in the previous 25 years and they’d only won Serie A once. Simeone’s arrival in midfield inspired Sven Erikisson’s team to win four trophies in under a year. Lazio have neither won the title nor a European trophy since.
With Argentina in 1991, Simeone drove the Albiceleste to their first Copa America win for 32 years. As a coach, he won the Argentinian Apertura with Estudiantes — their first trophy for 23 years.
Excuse the stats bomb, but with his historic achievements in charge of Atleti thrown in, you see the patterns don’t you? Simeone, stripped down to his raw core, is a catalyst. Driven, ambitious, hungry, talented, inspirational — successful.
Ferocious, insatiable, inspirational. Compare any of that information, that accurate characterisation, to the current squad’s performances, its personality, the apathy, the confusion, the fallibility — the Arsene Wenger-esque “top four will do fine, thank you.” What’s your conclusion?
Julien Laurens calls for Atletico Madrid’s next home game to be played without a crowd after fans shouted racist chants about Vinicius Junior during Sunday’s Madrid derby.
It would be fantastic if Atleti could hold a summit with their coach — reignite his fire, demand higher, more inspirational standards in daily work. Freshness, ferocity, renewed drive, ambition and, in short, an almost complete reset.
However, I fear that the beastly law of diminishing returns, between club, squad and coach, has set its steely claws and will not relinquish. If so, the key question for Atleti is, “What to do?”
The only unacceptable answer is: “head in the sand.” The same one Atletico Madrid have applied to the atrocity of their “Ultra” fans who title themselves: “Frente Atletico.”
Other people will have more direct, more sustained experience of this group that exhibits disgusting attitudes, but I can say, without question, the worst, most brutal racism I’ve ever witnessed across two decades living in Spain (or anywhere else for that matter) came from that sector of Atleti’s fans.
It was a Copa Del Rey Madrid derbi, at the Bernabeu in February 2014. The two coaches were … Diego Simeone and Carlo Ancelotti. Post Madrid’s 3-0 win, Ancelotti’s unused players were doing warm-down exercises on the pitch and Marcelo had his 4-year-old son with him while the away fans, for security purposes, were still locked in their section of the stadium.
What Atleti fans chanted and sang at Marcelo and his little son, simply because of their skin colour, was evil and unpardonable. I immediately phoned the TV station I worked with at the time to report that something horrific was taking place. Fair play — they immediately devoted their news bulletin to it.
In the immediate aftermath, some Atleti fans and personnel were angered and denied that the situation had been so disgusting — until Marcelo, late at night, tweeted a social media post about how he, and his son, heard it all but would never be daunted, changed or intimidated by such fools.
From then, until now, Atleti have done so little of meaning or effect that a sizable number of their fans felt able to racially abuse Vinicius Jr. in similar manner this weekend. It’s an ultra-serious situation. It requires both severe punishment (for any club and or fan base, with stadium closure the only meaningful way to get the point across).
Still more crucially, racism in football requires deep, permanent and forceful education at all levels of Spanish society. In both sporting and social terms, it’s time for all of us to tell Atletico that they are engaged in self-delusion.
The emperor is without clothes.