There are few dead certs in the footballing world -- Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo fighting it out for the Ballon d'Or aside. Yet ever since manager Diego Simeone took over at the Vicente Calderon, Atletico Madrid have been as certain as there is when it comes to recording clean sheets and keeping a tight ship at the back.
A solid back line has been the foundation for all of Los Rojiblancos' recent success. The figures speak for themselves. In Simeone's first full season in charge (2012-13) Atleti shipped 31 goals in 38 games -- nine fewer than their nearest rival. The 2013-14 La Liga-winning campaign saw just 26 goals conceded, and a year later that figure was 29, while last season keeper Jan Oblak was beaten a paltry 18 times. It is Atleti's trademark. It was, anyway.
Their 3-0 defeat to Villarreal on Monday night was Atletico's fourth loss of the season, and they have already conceded 14 goals in 15 outings. There is plainly a problem at the back.
But what is it? Good players like Oblak, Juanfran, Filipe Luis and Diego Godin, all of whom have shown incredible levels of consistency over the past few seasons, do not become bad players overnight. The answer might well be plainly obvious and something entirely of Simeone's own making, dating back to the weeks after Atletico's victory over Bayern Munich in last season's Champions League semifinal.
In that game Jose Maria Gimenez had a mad five minutes in which he deflected a Xabi Alonso free kick past Oblak for Bayern's first goal, before giving away a needless penalty -- that Oblak saved. It marked a turning point for the young Uruguayan's career at Atleti.
Previously the first choice to partner Godin at the back and the reason the club sold Joao Miranda, he started the next league game (with his countryman absent) but tellingly did not start Los Colchoneros next fixture, with Stefan Savic preferred. It was Atleti's last league game of the season and their only remaining fixture before the Champions League final against Real Madrid.
Simeone had seemingly shown his hand, and so it transpired. The man from Montenegro got the nod in Milan and went into this campaign as Godin's first choice partner. Initially things went well, and he was even forgiven for a brainless sending off against Malaga as he picked up two bookings in the space of 11 minutes. However, against the better sides, Atleti never looked quite as solid at the back.
Some of this can be attributed to a change in formation and playing style. Yet even with Tiago back in the side things did not appear quite right. Savic's performance levels began to slip and his nadir in Rojiblanco came in the 3-0 embarrassment by Los Blancos in the Madrid derby last month. He conceded the free kick and penalty from which Madrid scored their first two goals and looked like a rabbit in the headlights throughout.
Worse still, he was making the usually unflappable Godin appear nervous next to him, too. Gimenez came back into the fold after the Derbi Madrileno and started three successive games in which the side kept clean sheets. Godin was back to his usual, solid self and all seemed well. Yet for the trip to Bayern last Wednesday, he was once again out of the side with Savic restored. Ditto for the implosion at Villarreal.
Indeed, in four of the club's last six La Liga games they have shipped two or more goals -- something they had not done in the previous 49. Coincidentally, Savic started all four of those fixtures. The two in which he did not? Gimenez partnered Godin and the team did not concede.
In all six games the 21-year-old has started this season the club have kept a clean sheet. For Savic, the Copa del Rey fixture against Guijuelo aside, you must go back to October's win at Rostov for a last shutout in any competition and the 2-0 win away to Valencia back on Oct. 2nd for the last one in La Liga.
As to why Gimenez was dropped, Simeone only knows. Whether it was that game in Munich or if it was something to do with attention from other clubs or the fact that he has not signed a new deal with the club and only has 18 months to run on his current contract is up in the air.
What cannot be disputed, however, are the facts. Savic is not a bad player. He is an excellent defender, however his presence and drop off in form has contributed to what is the worst start the club have made to a season with Simeone at the helm.
Thus, it appears that there is a simple remedy for Atleti's current ills at the back. With first choice goalkeeper Oblak now out injured, added to the fact that the club sit in sixth place and in a fight to get into next season's Champions League, the backline needs more reinforcement than ever. The Argentine needs to swallow his pride and recall Gimenez to the first XI sharpish. Otherwise it could be a very long, leaky campaign.