Frequent off days in danger of derailing Atletico Madrid’s title challenge

Jose Maria Gimenez

Statistically speaking, there’s a lot to like about this Atletico Madrid side. At the current rate, even after Sunday’s disappointing 1-0 defeat at Barcelona, they are on course for an 84 point and 81 goal LaLiga season.

That would represent their highest goal tally in more than 70 years while only four times previously have Los Rojiblancos passed the 80 point mark in the league.

Their overall level this season has been high and they’ve even emerged as unlikely entertainers, particularly in the Champions League where no team can better Atleti’s tally of 15 goals from their opening five group games.

However three poor performances and poor results away from home have been major blips in an otherwise strong start to the 2023/24 campaign. Those results are the main reason why Atletico Madrid are seven points off the top (with a game in hand) and according to live betting odds, only the third favourite to win LaLiga at 10/1.

A squad that’s capable of winning LaLiga

There is no comparison between the Atletico Madrid of today and the Atletico Madrid of twelve months ago that endured a miserable start to the 2022/23 season, exiting Europe altogether and falling out of title contention by the time of the break caused by the first winter World Cup.

While the personnel remains largely the same, pieces have fallen into place, underperforming players have rediscovered their best football and Diego Simeone’s starting lineup now has a relatively settled feel.

There is only really a debate about the best options in one or two positions, whereas this time last year, there were perhaps only a handful of guaranteed picks in addition to some serious systemic question marks.

Jose Maria Gimenez
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The resurgence of Mario Hermoso and reinvention of Axel Witsel as a competent centre-back has helped give the back three a more assured feel, with the only frustration being Jose Maria Gimenez’s inability to stay fit for more than a few weeks.

Ahead of them, Koke, Rodrigo De Paul, Nahuel Molina, Alvaro Morata and Antoine Griezmann have all established themselves as mainstays for this side, with healthy competition for the final two places in the best eleven.

Atleti fans will also be hoping the depth to their squad can give them an edge in a long title race and you can make a real case for saying they currently have the strongest bench in Spain with Cesar Azpilicueta, Saul Niguez, Memphis Depay, Angel Correa and Samuel Lino all utilised in the Second Half of Sunday’s game while the likes of Stefan Savic, Reinildo and Javi Galan failed to make it onto the pitch.

Slip-ups away from home

In theory, this is a squad that has all the ingredients needed for a long slog for the league title which Atletico Madrid last won behind closed doors in the 2020/21 season.

However, what’s in danger of becoming a trend and potentially derailing this challenge altogether, is their current inability to take points from away games when they aren’t at their best, with three striking examples already this season.

The first was at Mestalla in September. Atletico Madrid had hit seven in their previous game, making a real statement of intent by thumping Rayo Vallecano in Vallecas. However the postponement of their fixture against Sevilla which resulted in a three week wait for their next outing, saw Atleti return distinctly out of sorts as they slumped to a 3-0 defeat against what’s far from the greatest Valencia side of all time.

The response was impressive. Six straight wins in LaLiga, each of them deserved victories, followed before Simeone’s men once again ran into trouble on the road in surprising fashion against newly promoted Las Palmas in early November. 

A 2-1 defeat in Gran Canaria brought their winning run to a juddering halt and it’s now back-to-back away defeats after Joao Felix’s solitary goal in Sunday’s showdown with Barcelona. That was a match which saw Atleti produce one of their worst performances of the season in a game that, their awful recent record in the fixture aside, the visitors had little reason to fear given Barcelona’s recent struggles.

While the result by no means ended Atletico Madrid’s title challenge, it’s hard to dress it up as anything other than a major setback, particularly given Simeone had the luxury of being able to field his perceived strongest eleven.

A winter of challenging road trips

If defeat in Barcelona was not terminal, Atletico Madrid now know that, with ground to make up on the top two of Real Madrid and Girona, they are going to need to do a much better job of negotiating tricky away trips over the next couple of months.

While their upcoming matches at the Civitas Metropolitano are mostly favourable, there is a real danger that their title challenge could collapse before it has even really got going, if they don’t pick up good results over the next couple of months away from home.

San Mames
A trip to San Mames is Atleti’s next away game in LaLiga.

Atleti’s only remaining away game in 2023 is on Sunday 16th December when they travel to San Mames to take on an increasingly impressive Athletic side who are just one place below them in the current standings.

January begins with a trip to surprise package Girona who Diego Simeone’s side currently trail by seven points. While two of their following three away games are across town in the Madrid derby at the Santiago Bernabeu and then at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan which remains a difficult place to go and win despite Sevilla’s current struggles.

Atletico Madrid may need to win at least a couple of those fixtures if they want to be in with a fighting chance of winning LaLiga come the spring, and that’s assuming their home form remains strong.

Daniel Garcia
About Daniel Garcia 298 Articles
Daniel is a football writer based in Spain. He has an extensive knowledge of LaLiga history and closely follows current events in the Spanish top flight.