Two seasons ago, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid pulled off one of the greatest feats in modern day soccer, breaking the Spanish duopoly and winning La Liga ahead of Real Madrid and Barcelona. To the neutral observer, it was nothing short of a miracle, but to those who followed the team closely, it was an effort of surgical precision. Simeone never allowed Atletico to get ahead of themselves the entire campaign, preaching patience and a “one game at a time” mantra as his squad approached its summit.
Repeating that accomplishment was always going to be a tall task, and Atletico struggled with their consistency last season. Of course, the jarring losses of Diego Costa and Filipe Luis, two important cogs of their title winning team, didn’t help either. Atletico took some time to adjust; their star signing Antoine Grizemann struggled to find his place in the squad early, on and their rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona romped forward. Grizemann would explode in the second half of the season in his new center forward role, but in the end, Atletico would finish third.
For a club that has been marred by inconsistency and dubious behavior off the pitch for the better part of the last 15 years, finishing third the season after winning the league is a massive achievement, one that introduces the concept of stability to the club. It’s a case of one step backward in preparation of a couple steps forward; the club is finally rebuilding in an organic manner.
This summer, Atletico underwent a major change in personnel. Core members Arda Turan, Raul Garcia and Joao Miranda made their exits while the likes of Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto, Yannick Carrasco, Stefan Savic and the returns of Oliver Torres and Filipe Luis all bolstered the squad.
While the sale of established veterans may appear like a loss on the surface, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. In many ways the board’s decision to let go of these players is essentially a pre-emptive strike against the inevitability of their decline. Last campaign, Miranda suffered a loss of form compared to his exploits the season prior; Raul Garcia, enticed by an offer from Atheltic Club, grew tired of his bench role; and, ultimately, Arda was ready for a new challenge. These players were all on the wrong side of 30 or, in Arda’s case, just approaching that milestone (Arda turns 29 next January). Instead of waiting for their inevitable decline, Atletico has refreshed the squad, a decision that should pay major dividends in the future.
Doubling down on the concept of stability, Simeone has reiterated yet again that his team’s goal this season is third place and another automatic UEFA Champions League spot. Atletico don’t need to bite off more than they can chew, according to the man they call ‘Cholo.’ Instead, he wants the team to focus on becoming a consistent performer in La Liga, slowly building season after season, before making the jump to elite status. In the rapidly moving world of modern football, such a protracted approach is rare, but given Atletico’s past penchant for quick fixes built upon the rockiest of foundations, this could just work.
With two wins from two, Atletico have started the season brightly. They claimed a major scalp in their last match, an impressive 3-0 victory over Sevilla in the Sanchez Pizjuan. As the club evolves on and off the pitch, Atletico may be a bit unrecognizable this season as well. Captain Gabi called it the best squad in the past few years, and while the level of the players may not currently match some of those who have departed, Atletico now have a future to look forward to, in addition to short-term squad depth.
The Atletico of the past few seasons were built on a cohesive starting 11 and a stringent defense. They built from the back, they were hard-working, and wore their opponents down over time. Diego Godin and Miranda were at the heart of the beast, becoming the best centerback paring in Spain, if not Europe. But Atletico always suffered when one of their core players sat out through injury or suspension. A lack of depth was something they were able to evade two seasons ago as Diego Costa’s goals often masked any deficiencies, but last campaign it was often too overwhelming.
This Atletico is far different. While ‘Cholo’ will undoubtedly continue to preach the importance of a high workrate and defensive effort from all his players, the squad’s enticing attacking options make them a far more dangerous team. Imagine the potential of their vibrant new attack coupled with the maintenance of the core principles that made them so hard to beat the past few years. Atletico could be far more dangerous moving forward – a transition that will truly take the team to the next level.
Oliver Torres was sent away on loan to Porto last season, where under Juan Lopetegui (the former Spanish U-21 coach) he was able to round out his game. After being touted for greatness for a number of years, he’s been granted the ‘10’ shirt and given the responsibility of replacing Arda Turan in the starting lineup. A technical marvel, able to dribble out of tight spaces, Torres can conduct the kind of spellbinding interplay in midfield that’s so important in the Spanish league.
Luciano Vietto, the budding Argentine superstar, resembles another former Atletico striker, Kun Aguero. Vietto took like a fish to water last season in his debut campaign in La Liga for Villarreal, netting 20 goals in total. While he would do well to replicate that total this campaign in a far more competitive squad, he will grow under Simeone, who initially gave him his debut back in Argentina, at Racing Club de Avellaneda in 2011.
And lastly the prized jewel of the Vicente Calderon, Antoine Grizemann, with his spanking new €80 million release clause, should continue his fine form this season. The addition of FC Porto’s goal machine, Jackson Martinez, should also relieve some of the burden on the Frenchman.
Despite Simeone’s insistence that third place is the goal, Atletico could again pushing the big two, one of which Atletico face off against this weekend as they take on Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon.
External factors play a role here as well: Barcelona, still hampered by their transfer singing ban until January, have a limited squad. Unable to rely on the likes of Aleix Vidal and Turan, the defending champions will be pushed to the limit in the first half of the season. The extra commitments of the Champions League, the Copa Del Rey and perhaps, most importantly, the FIFA Club World Cup could take a massive toll on their relatively thin squad.
The Club World Cup, in particular — held in Japan during December — could be a real test. The LFP have decided to forego a winter break this season in order to end La Liga earlier and give the Spanish national team more time to prepare for the upcoming Euros. With the turn of the year also bringing about a flurry of two-legged Copa Del Rey encounters, calling the December period hectic for Barcelona would be an understatement.
Of course, Barcelona will likely dominate in the second half of the campaign, especially when the new additions join, but it would be quite the achievement if Luis Enrique’s side could survive the first half of the season relatively unscathed.
City rivals Real Madrid are going through a bit of a transition as well. Florentino Perez relieved Carlo Ancelotti of his duties after a trophy-less campaign last season, bringing in Rafa Benitez to manage the squad. Madrid started off their campaign with a disappointing 0-0 draw away to a spirited Sporting Gijon side. Their second game however, a 5-0 drubbing of newly-promoted Real Betis, was likely far more representative of the club this year. Madrid certainly have the talent to dominate in La Liga, but they are already two points behind in a league that’s quite unforgiving.
Consistency will be key, but regardless of the end result this campaign, Atletico is a team on an upward trajectory. That only bodes well for the league as a whole.
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