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The Curious Case of Atlético Madrid’s Vanishing Attack

While the scoreless Madrid derby might have brought up memories of Diego Simeone teams from seasons past, it also continued the club’s current crisis. How good can you be when you can’t score a goal?

Diego Simeone and Antonie Griezmann Getty Images/Ringer illustration

To anyone who sat through the entire Madrid derby: You deserve some kind of prize. What typically is a frenetic, back-and-forth contest instead rewarded viewers with a dour, scoreless draw that did little but confirm the prevailing narratives hanging over both teams.

Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid are now tied on 24 points in La Liga, 10 points back of league-leading Barcelona. Neither team can score, and, on Saturday, neither one did.

Real’s mixed form is largely explained by a huge dip in their finishing. They drew their first two home games then lost the next, but those results could’ve been way different on another day:

After that rough start at the Bernabéu, there was a surprise away defeat at just-promoted Girona, in addition to a home draw to Tottenham and a 3–1 loss at Wembley in the reverse fixture. The BBC strikeforce have been largely absent from the goal charts, at least in league play. Cristiano Ronaldo has one league goal from more than 50 shots, Karim Benzema has one also, while Gareth Bale — stop us if you’ve heard this one before — has spent much of the season injured. Another blank at Atlético in which Benzema was anonymous and Ronaldo often surly did little to remedy that. It’s been far from ideal, even allowing for the impressive playmaking form of Isco and the continued promise of Marco Asensio.

Yet, while the defending La Liga and Champions League winners can expect the goals to come — they’re shooting often enough and from the right locations — their city brethren suffer from deeper attacking issues. In fact, their attack has vanished almost entirely.

Across 17 competitive games this season, Diego Simeone’s men have scored more than one goal on only four occasions, and the trend is pointing in the wrong direction. Not one of those games is within their last 10. Indeed, after scoring seven in their first two games, their last 15 games have yielded just 12 goals. Tepid, you-wouldn’t-let-someone-you-care-about-watch-them stuff. For another team, this might have been disastrous, but Atlético’s defense is seasoned, reliable, and as robust as ever. They have conceded more than one goal on only two occasions, with one of those being their sole defeat of the whole season against Chelsea in the Champions League.

So what has caused this downturn in attacking power? It is not a situation akin to Real, where their finishing touch has deserted them; Atlético simply haven’t been creating a sufficient volume of chances to finish. In logging around 11 shots per game, they are down a couple of shots from last year, and, on top of that, the strikers can’t find the net when they do put an attempt toward goal. After spending most of last year on the right side of the midfield, Ángel Correa has frequently been pushed up into one of the two forward roles this season. He has four goals in 10 starts but only two since the start of September. Antoine Griezmann’s only three club goals this season came in a quick burst during 11 days in September. For a guy with 75 Atlético goals in three prior seasons, that’s a huge drought.

With the club enduring a transfer ban during the recent summer window for breaching FIFA rules surrounding the signing of youth players, Luciano Vietto returned from a loan with Sevilla to provide competition for places up top, but with zero goals or assists in his handful of starts, he’s created an even bigger void. Fernando Torres and Kevin Gameiro remain, but despite a healthy 20 league goals between them last season, they’ve struggled to find playing time so far. Winger Yannick Carrasco remains an effective attacking outlet, and his three goals and three assists are a rare bright spot among the forwards. However, he missed time across October and November with an injury, and his return against Real was welcome but not decisive.

Rumours persist about Griezmann’s long-term future but regardless, it feels like the front end of the team needs new blood. The elephant in the room here is that new players are imminent. After sitting the first half of the season out while still technically on Chelsea’s roster — he’s waiting until the transfer ban ends — a returning Diego Costa will arrive well rested in January for a steep-looking £60m, while Vitolo is parked on loan back at his hometown club, Las Palmas, and will compete for a left-sided spot. He brings the pedigree of three Europa League victories while at Sevilla and has been a reliable and consistent performer there. However, the transfer ban has created the odd psychology of a current forward line knowing it is just marking time until the next guy arrives. Even if the stop-gap players weren’t all misfiring, Costa — for reasons of both cost and caliber — will surely be guaranteed to start come January, presumably alongside Griezmann.

There’s also the possible impact of the move from the Vicente Calderón to the brand-new Wanda Metropolitano, which works two ways. Firstly, research has shown that home-field advantage diminishes in the first season in a new stadium, and while Atlético won their first two matches there, they are now without a win in five. (Granted, Chelsea, Barcelona, and Real have visited in that time.) Secondly, the opening of the stadium on September 17 skewed Atletico’s schedule; their first four games of the year (and 10 of 17 in total) were away from home.

The lack of goals at both ends has contributed to a slew of draws: Five games have finished 0–0, and another four 1–1. Atlético remain one of the hardest teams in Europe to beat, but they’re now suffering from the same issue they pose for their opponents. While this hasn’t hugely affected their league position — they are, after all, undefeated in the league and even on points with Real — it has had dire effects on their Champions League campaign.

The home loss to Chelsea followed by two draws against presumed group minnows FC Qarabag have all but killed Atlético’s hopes in a competition where they normally thrive: They’ve made two finals, a semifinal, and a quarterfinal in the last four years. This week they welcome Roma to the new Wanda Metropolitano, and they realistically have to win in order to keep their hopes of advancing out of the group stages alive. Even a win may not be enough, though. If Chelsea and Roma each win their second game against Qarabag, Atletico will be eliminated.

Simeone gets linked with every big job that becomes vacant, especially in the Premier League, but it looks as though this season — his seventh with Atlético — could well be his toughest in some years.

With Valencia now in second in La Liga — six points clear of both Madrid sides — and Sevilla and Villarreal within three points of Atletico, Atlético’s usual top-four slot could be under threat. Third place in their Champions League group is disappointing, but that would qualify them for the latter stages of the Europa League in the new year, and they’d enter that competition as one of the clear favorites. Perhaps that motivation can enable a Costa-powered side to rediscover its attacking mojo?

The Simeone era has seen the club compete with and, at times, beat their richer compatriots to become one of the best teams in Europe. This season has seen genuine decline from that peak, and the Champions League crisis is the first and most visible representation of that. Their attack needs to come to life and quickly, or else the whole season could end up a write-off.