Saul strike lifts recent gloom around the Vincente Calderon

Saul strike lifts recent gloom around the Vincente Calderon

After a winless run of three games for Diego Simeone’s men, a second-half strike from Saul Niguez ensured Atletico Madrid returned to winning ways with a 1-0 win at home to Las Palmas, but why do doubts remain over the Atleti side this year?

It has been an extraordinary year Los Colchoneros who despite finishing 2016 in 6th place (one point behind Villareal in 4th), reached the Champions League Final in May only to be beaten on penalties by their Madrid neighbours and have comfortably secured qualification to the last-32 in this year’s European campaign, qualifying as group winners.

However, Atletico’s form has been inconsistent at best this year and many pundits are already ruling Simeone’s side out of the title race; an honour they famously won in 2014 and have narrowly missed out on in the two campaigns since.

They have lost three of their last seven fixtures and looked particularly poor in their 3-0 defeat to Villareal at the El Madrigal on the 12th December, in a game that was compounded by goalkeeper Jan Oblak’s shoulder injury that could see the Slovenian stopper ruled out for up to four months.

A trademark that has been clearly missing is what has been so well instilled into them in recent seasons by Simeone in their energetic high pressing game; off-the-ball instructions to smother and stifle opponents high up the pitch, allowing the Atleti midfielders to win possession when the opponent is vulnerable deep in their own half.  Recent performances have been lethargic with no real intensity in the midfield or in attacking situations.

A particular concern may be that of the recent goal-drought suffered by French striker Antoine Griezmann who is without a goal since the 2nd October, his worst in his La Liga playing career. The striker, who was confirmed as third for the 2016 Ballon d’Or had notched 6 goals for the season before this period.

Simeone will look to the upcoming winter break in La Liga as a crucial point in their season as his side will look to revive their domestic form, but particularly to rediscover their freshness and high-octane pressing tactic that wears down opponents so effectively.

Despite stuttering results for Atleti domestically thus far this season, no faults or lack of confidence have been evident in their 2016/17 Champions League form, having beaten Bayern Munich to top their group table with relative ease. As last year’s beaten finalists, they may well fancy the competition as their best chance of silverware this season, in possibly Simeone’s last in the Spanish capital.

Despite them only being nine points behind La Liga leaders and city rivals Real Madrid, a title charge in the New Year will surely be too much to expect from Atleti in both sides’ current form, particularly with Simeone’s burgeoning desire to lift the Champions League as a manager in his career. However, if they can build on scrappy results like the 1-0 result at home to Las Palmas, keep developing the club’s young rising stars (Angel Correa, Yannick Carrasco & Jose Jiménez) and make sensible signings to improve the first x11, confidence will build and 2017 could be Atletico Madrid’s year.

They simply have too much character, passion, talent and energy to fall away without a fight.

Frustration builds for Mourinho as his impact fails to improve results

Frustration builds for Mourinho as his impact fails to improve results

Leighton Baines’ 89th minute penalty for Everton consigned Manchester United to their poorest domestic start to a season after 14 games in 26 years.

The result was in fact United’s third 1-1 draw in a row (after Arsenal & West Ham respectively), in a game Jose Mourinho will rue his side’s lack of a cutting edge to put games of this nature to bed.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had put United ahead on 42 minutes to score his sixth goal in five games with a sublimely placed chip over the rash Maarten Stekelenburg, hitting both bar and post before crossing the line. The Dutch goalkeeper had made the instinctive and ultimately naive decision to rush out to the Swedish striker in an attempt to block any audacious effort from the uniquely unpredictable Ibrahimiovic.

Prior to this, a noteworthy early moment in the encounter ensued on 15 minutes when Marcus Rojo dived in wildly two-footed on Idrissa Gueye and could easily have been shown an immediate red.  Subsequently, referee Michael Oliver brandished the Argentine defender with just a yellow and United exploited their let-off as they took charge and dictated the majority of the first-half proceedings.

The second-half was a much tighter affair in which Everton began to offer far more of an attacking threat. Idrissa Gueye, Emner Valencia and Kevin Mirallas all forced David De Gea into action whilst at the other end Ander Herrera crashed a shot into the frame of the goal.

However, it was to be an ex-Everton talisman who was to decide the fate of the game after only being introduced on 85 minutes. Marouane Fellaini was the oncoming substitute who on his 100th appearance for the club was brought on to help United see the game out. Instead, his first noteworthy action was to commit a clumsy foul on Idrissa Gueye in the penalty box to throw away a vital three points that could well have kick-started United’s season.

Mourinho replaced Louis Van Gaal in the summer no doubt looking to re-establish his reputation as one of the world’s top managers after a damaging and sorry end to his association with his beloved Chelsea football club.  There can be no denying his recent record makes for worrying reading. He has won only nine of his past 30 Premier League games for both clubs – a 30% win ratio; making an average of 1.2 points per game. Compare that to his first spell at Chelsea between June 2004 and September 2007 and you notice an alarming difference- 136 wins in his first 196 games in the Barclays Premier League; averaging an extraordinary 2.29 points per game. To compare to other recent United managers who have experienced significant press and fan negativity at the club, Jose’s 21 points after 14 games at United is in fact worse than under David Moyes (22 points) and Louis van Gaal (25).

However, there are numerous other factors to bear in mind when you analyse United‘s poor domestic performance thus far this season. The club have suffered a remarkable fall from grace in the past three years under the contrasting and unstable guidance of David Moyes (2013/14) and Louis Van Gaal (2014/2016). Van Gaal’s regime was vilified by the majority of fans (particularly last season) with a brand of football played that was labelled as “risk averse” by sections of the media and “dull” by the majority of the Old Trafford faithful. Immediate transformation into the exhilarating, rampant and dominant United seen throughout the majority of the 90’s and 00’s under Ferguson was always going to be unrealistic.

It is believed that Mourinho will get time from the boardroom to further exert his influence on the side, and will again be fully backed in the upcoming transfer window. A major tactical issue has been the unbalanced and disordered style of play as the players re-adapt to a more direct style of play under Mourinho after two years of the possession-based philosophy of Van Gaal. For the past two seasons, Van Gaal’s influence on the team was to favour a slow build-up of possession with horizontal passes dictating proceedings in a bid to wear down opponents.

Mourinho’s beliefs are quite frankly the antithesis of the previous regime. Bombing full-backs overlapping winger’s with dynamic vertical passes are the primary style changes this season that have been welcomed by the club’s faithful, seen as the first’s significant steps to restoring the “beautiful football” tag at the Theatre of Dreams.

Combine this adaptation with the £150m spent in the summer transfer window and the three major new attacking talents (Ibrahimovic, Pogba & Mkhitaryan) still settling into life in Manchester and you understand why the boardroom recognise this is a side in transition that requires squad balance and managerial stability.

For the immediate present, Mourinho must focus on rectifying his side’s reoccurring downfall in the short-term and that is his side’s failure to finish games off from winning positions.