Diego Simeone has a problem. There are two months of the 2017/18 season left and Atlético Madrid are still fighting on two fronts, pursuing the Europa League as well as half-challenging Barcelona for LaLiga and half-clinging on to second place ahead of Real Madrid, but they have just 18 senior players – one goalkeeper and 17 outfielders – left.
Having allowed Yannick Carrasco, Nico Gaitán and Augusto Fernández to move to the Chinese Super League in the winter window, having sent Luciano Vietto on loan to Valencia and having then cashed in on backup goalkeeper Miguel Ángel Moyà when Real Sociedad needed an emergency shot-stopper, Atlético’s cupboard has become as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s.
To make matters worse, starting left-back Filipe Luís has fractured his left fibula and might not play again this season, so in reality there are just 17 senior players available for this crucial final stretch of the season.
Of course, there will be furthers injuries and suspensions to deal with too, while Simeone might also like to rest some of his exhausted starters every now and then as well. The football gods have already punished Atlético for their squad-planning brazenness by inflicting Jan Oblak with his first injury in over a year just days after Moya was sold to Real Sociedad. While Moya had only been used for cup games up until his sale, there was a need for a backup goalie almost as soon as the experienced Spanish shot-stopper moved north. As such, Atlético have been left to play Axel Werner, previously their third-choice goalkeeper, on two occasions over the past month.
Generally, the starting XI hasn’t been directly affected by the fact the capital city club are trying to spread the little bits of butter stuck in the corners of the tub over an entire French baguette. It’s on the bench that the thinness of the squad is being felt, with three youth teamers on the bench for last Thursday’s match at Lokomotiv Moscow and with two on it for last weekend’s trip to Villarreal.
Before long, though, the lack of rotation options will start to impact the starting XI too, whose performance levels may start to dip if forced to play twice a week with almost no respite all the way until the end of May.
Simeone has never been too keen to play players from the B team in first-team matches. The Argentine prefers to properly promote the academy players he likes into his senior squad at the start of the season, rather than including them on an ad hoc basis throughout the campaign, considering the B team are currently competing all the way down in the third division. He may have to start trusting some of the youngsters a bit more and he probably will to some extent, but more likely is that he’ll run down the tyres on his starters until they are frayed and falling apart.
The coach’s options have become so thin that he must now be envious of the squad depth of Blazin’ Squad, and he would have every right to be furious with the club hierarchy, even if he has insisted in press conferences that he isn’t worried. With a new stadium to pay for and having splashed out around €66m on Diego Costa, it was understandable that Atlético would look to reduce some of their red ink in the winter window. But they may have gone too far and been too confident in the fitness and the health of their remaining players. They have played with fire and are being burned by the long-term injury to Filipe Luis and the ongoing niggles suffered by Jan Oblak.
Atlético Madrid still have so much to play for and 2017/18 could end up being their most successful season since they won the league and reached the Champions League final in 2013/14. But if they end up missing out on the Europa League or dropping down to third, then their lack of squad depth will surely be one reason for it. In that case, they’d only have themselves to blame.