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Diego Simeone Must Bring Change to Atletico Madrid or Face Being Left Behind

Mark Jones@@Mark_Jones86Featured ColumnistAugust 30, 2016

Diego Simeone at Leganes.
Diego Simeone at Leganes.Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

It was probably a throwaway line more than anything, but Antoine Griezmann might end up regretting what he said after Atletico Madrid's goalless draw at Leganes on Saturday night.

The Frenchman—on a football pitch for the first time since his efforts for France at Euro 2016 in the summer—cut a hugely frustrated figure as a side with ambitions of winning LaLiga title failed to break down a team playing a first match at top-flight level, and after the game, it showed.

Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco.
Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco.Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Atletico now have just two points from two games, and—as reported by F.J. Diaz of AS—Griezmann is less than impressed, claiming that his team would be "fighting against relegation" if this type of form was to go on for much longer.

Hyperbole? Yes, but it also seemed to capture the mood at a club seemingly still hungover from last season's agonising Champions League final defeat.

In horse-racing terms, Atletico have missed the break this season. The race has started, and as they've stumbled out of the stalls, they've been able to see Barcelona and Real Madrid galloping off into the distance. So, too, have surprise leaders Las Palmas, although the rank outsiders surely can't keep that up.

It has led to a lot of soul-searching at Atletico, and there is little doubt that the international break we've just entered is going to be one full of difficult questions for manager Diego Simeone, who is seeing his reign questioned like never before.

Most of the discord comes from his team selections, with a desire to pack midfield with players for whom attacking isn't necessarily the first option, leading to frustration from fans and, it seems, Griezmann, too.

In the draw with Alaves in the opening game of the season, it was a midfield four of Tiago, Gabi, Koke and Saul Niguez, and then for Leganes, he replaced Tiago with Augusto Fernandez.

And it was perhaps that move that riled Atleti fans the most.

Augusto Fernandez.
Augusto Fernandez.Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

Not to criticise Fernandez, who has been a solid addition since joining the club from Celta Vigo in January, but for him to be the first player in Simeone's mind when it came to altering his midfield setup says a lot about the Argentinian coach.

Players such as Yannick Carrasco and Nicolas Gaitan were crying out for starts, but instead Simeone restricted them to the bench again, preferring the safety-first option against a newly promoted outfit. 

By the end of the game, both were on the pitch with the two most dynamic starting midfielders, Koke and Saul, moving inside into the centre. That seems to be the crux of the problem regarding this start for Atleti, with many feeling that the manager needs to abandon his natural caution if his side are to progress.

Discussing Atletico's slow start on Sky Sports, Spanish football pundits Guillem Balague and Graham Hunter indicated that things could be about to get a lot more serious for the coach.

Referring to Griezmann's comments after the game, Hunter said:

Something has to change and very quickly, although it should be the manager saying it not the striker.

There's a sort of "Pied Piper" atmosphere at Atleti. Every single day in training, where every single player who has succeeded there has bought in completely to Simeone's ultra-strict regime, and you have to believe in the man.

Hunter then went on to talk about whether Simeone has already stayed too long at Atletico, with the two agonising Champions League final defeats to rivals Real Madrid in 2014 and 2016 now seen as huge mental blocks to escape from. He added:

Now twice they've gone to Champions League finals, and you can lose them, but in Milan [in 2016] the manner in which the defeat came and the decisions which Simeone took... It's early to be saying this, and it may sound bold, but I believe that some of the players have looked at the manager and no longer quite feel that he's the Svengali—the "absolutely everything I say is right" man—that they did before.

That can go away, but I think it's undermining one or two players right now.

If we're talking about how to get over the winners' line in a Champions League final. Two years ago, in 2014, they just about won bar three, four seconds [when Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos equalised], and the latest one they lost on penalties. These are fine details.

It's possible that the time to move on and refresh himself was in the summer. He signed a long contract, he's been honourable, he loves the club, but there is an argument that perhaps it was time to step away, say "I've done this job as well as I can" and take a sabbatical to come back hard, tough and mean again.

Those are all qualities that we've come to associate with one of the most revered managers in the game today, but this start has forced many to alter their opinions of Simeone.

His response to this below-par start to the season has been to preach calm, claiming, per Goal, that he is "not ashamed about the fact that we are lacking cutting edge and that this is happening to us" and that he is "happy with the work of my players."

Diego Simeone.
Diego Simeone.Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

And you'd expect him to say such things, but given that we all know how volatile he can be on the sidelines, then perhaps it wouldn't hurt to threaten to smash some heads together.

Atletico are, of course, in one of the most difficult positions in world football.

Everything they do domestically and in Europe has to be measured against Barcelona and Real Madrid, with the former assembling one of the best attacking lineups that world football has seen and the latter having just extended a 14-match winning streak in LaLiga, one off a club record.

It is obviously hugely difficult to take those two on, but Atleti always have to give themselves the best chance to.

Atletico Madrid's players after losing the 2016 Champions League final.
Atletico Madrid's players after losing the 2016 Champions League final.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It could be argued that losing two Champions League finals in three years is just too big a psychological barrier to overcome without altering some of their methods, and unless Simeone comes to this conclusion soon, then this could go on being a hugely difficult season for him.

The best veteran managers have to overcome disappointment, make the necessary changes and steam into battle again, and this—as Balague and Hunter indicated—is perhaps the first time that Simeone has faced such a moment in his career.

If he doesn't gamble and doesn't realise that change can be beneficial, then his side are in real danger of being left behind.

It is up to him to prove he can truly create a long-lasting legacy at Atletico and not just be remembered as the manager who made them fiercely competitive for what was ultimately a short period.