Atletico bid to rediscover defensive solidity
MADRID (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid's failure to keep a clean sheet in the last four games has undermined their terrific start to the season and raised questions about their once miserly defence.
One of Spain's strongest sides thanks to their defensive excellence in recent years, Diego Simeone's men gave away just three goals in their opening 11 games of the season and led La Liga alongside Real Madrid.
Things have changed quickly, however, as Atletico have conceded six goals in their last four matches, including their first in Champions League Group D.
Consecutive away league defeats at Sevilla and Real Sociedad have left Atletico fourth in the standings, six points behind leaders Real, whom they host on Saturday.
"We cannot lose further ground if we are to compete for the title but it's clear that we need to improve to win as we were doing before," Atletico captain Gabi told Marca.
Atletico have had the best defensive record in La Liga in three of the last four seasons.
Only 31 goals were scored against them in Simeone's first full season in charge (2012-13) and 26 the following campaign when they last lifted the league title.
Atletico let in 29 goals in 2014-15, eight more than champions Barcelona and Simeone's side shipped only 18 goals in 38 games last season.
But recent performances, including a 2-0 defeat at Real Sociedad, suggest problems at the back and Gabi believes one reason is Simeone's decision to move Koke into an attacking midfield role after previously playing him on the left wing.
The switch has made Atletico more prolific in attack and they have scored 25 goals in 11 league games, nine more than at this stage last season.
"With Koke playing in the middle, we generate a lot of play, we have the ball a lot more, but when it comes time to defend we are much more fragile," Gabi said.
Simeone does see positives in Koke's new position.
"Inside he gives us much more perspective," the coach said. "He makes us play faster."
Atletico, without a clean sheet since Oct. 19, still have the second best defensive record in La Liga with eight goals conceded, one more than Villarreal.
(Reporting by Adriana Garcia, editing by Ed Osmond)