Atlético de Madrid’s evolving place at LaLiga’s top table

Twisting and turning, aching and groaning, knees burning; Atlético de Madrid finally came round the ultimate bend in last season’s title race with nothing more to give. Every last life had been used, every slice of fortune pawned away and all of their reserves exhausted. Even while toting a double-digit lead earlier in the season, the champions elect blazer was an ill-fitting one. It was when they came close to the abyss, seeing a historic lead slipping away, that they believed in themselves most. Written large for all the press to see at the training ground: “If you do not believe, then don’t come.”

The mental game at Atleti, always so crucial to their triumphs, takes on an intriguing twist this season. Having strengthened their squad, in contrast their rivals have been priced out of some of their prize possessions. How then to pose the question of a title defence, to a group so entrenched in their underdog mentality?

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this reincarnation of los colchoneros is how little is being said about their defence itself. Although this was still the best defence in the division last year there seems to be an acceptance that without the ball this team is now very good but not great. No longer the impregnable shell of the mid-2010s, occasions like their infamous rear-guard action at Anfield are an anomaly these days. Their ill-fated attempt of the same strategy against Chelsea last year was more limp than stout. 

The quandary draining far more brain power is how to replicate their attacking output from last year. Not that it was a forward-line which inspired horror in the opposition – rather several of the key parts were sputtering a little during that pre-spring struggles last year.

The complete emptying of his chest, convulsing in a steady flow of tears on the pitch as a title winner once more, were clear evidence that wiley coyote Luis Suárez had been on an emotional journey last year. Bottling up the hurt from his treatment by Barcelona, this pressurised motivation was a large part of what fuelled Suárez and in turn Atleti to the title.

Although it’s unlikely that el pistolero will lack for fight, whether he can find a similar fire to keep himself burning at the same rate is doubtful. One must remain mindful of the debilitating effects of father time too.

Neither can they count on the surprise factor of revelation Marcos Llorente. More often than not, when Atleti had their shoulders pressed against a defence it was the added force of Llorente that finally caved the door in. Diego Simeone can count on more alternatives in attack and for Llorente to replicate that impact would be difficult, especially if he is to have reduced freedom going forward. That would be the logical consequence of the added options now available, although nothing would be more Simeone than to continue playing a former defensive midfielder in their stead.

One such reinforcement that may require Llorente to tamp down his ideas going forward is Matheus Cunha. At first sight, the Brazilian is not a particularly Cholo player. Whether he is alternative or a complement to Suárez could be determined by the success of Ángel Correa, who in the opening weeks has looked defiantly reliable in the face of competition.

Still, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Cunha signing is that there is already a player in the squad whom somewhat resembles him. Although different in styles, both look to occupy similar spaces and would probably audition for the role of ‘second striker’ if given the choice.

The enigmatic figure of João Félix will, for the third season running, be the great x-factor for Atleti. Ever since his arrival in June of 2019, he’s never been able to completely silence the nagging injuries in his ear. Having moved for so much so young, it’s hard to set expectations for him. Los Colchoneros paid for potential, yet nobody is quite sure where he is supposed to be on the journey to reaching it.

Interestingly, just 80 minutes separate Félix and Cunha in terms of playing time since they arrived in the Spanish and German capitals; both have scored 13 goals and made 6 in their respective leagues. Going by the statistics, the Portuguese is the better passer. Cunha on average dribbles more than twice as much as Félix, shoots more regularly and has also registered double the amount of pressures (fbref.com). Going by the numbers, Cunha is much more in line with the efficient and direct approach Atleti look for. To give him minutes ahead of Félix, the player with large reserves of talent and a larger price tag, is a move maybe too bold even for Simeone.

Those options are at this point just that however: an alternative with as many question marks as answers. Much more solid is Rodrigo de Paul. If Lionel Messi dragged Argentina to the final of the Copa América, it was de Paul who carried his bags and consequently shoved him over the precipice into glory.

Within a media climate that seeks to clearly define the role of each player, the former Udinese man is refreshingly versatile. Not only did he more than hold up as an athlete, he exhibited a polished technical repertoire and a useful brain with which to operate the other two. No midfielder in Serie A drew more fouls than him last season and he was in the top 13% for fouls committed. Crucially for Simeone, underneath the rest is grit.

On his full debut, he proved the difference as they overcame Elche in a stuffy 1-0 victory. Their three best chances (and the goal) were crafted by de Paul’s foot, measuring incisive passes behind the backline. It’s clichéd to say he adds a new dimension to Atleti, but it did appear as if the Atleti forwards had new spaces with which to work – knowing that de Paul could find them there. Last season he also led his peers for progressive carries, expected assists and players dribbled past.

All of these conundrums have been stewing in Simeone’s mind for weeks, which is before you add Antoine Griezmann to the melting pot. Arriving in a blaze of… not glory but market opportunity, Simeone retains a slightly softer spot for Griezmann along his hard exterior. That possibly makes him an immediate condiment (or eventual replacement) for Suárez.

Perhaps the greater challenge is not fitting him into the side, rather it may be re-educating him in the Atleti mindset. Doubtless, Griezmann brings production: 20 goals and 13 assists are numbers which contradict the narrative of disappointment. Like a comedian who had lost the ability to laugh, the sombre Griezmann of Barcelona continued to work hard but it was a passionless job. This project is about returning some of the brio back to a forlorn figure. Only then will he become definitive again.

In Griezmann maybe there is another wounded ego that can be re-purposed for revenge. Yet it does feel as if this attack will need to play with an onus unfamiliar to Cholo Simeone. No longer do Atlético Madrid have to deal with historic points totals from Real Madrid and Barcelona: these are sides which will permit mistakes. Despite being the best team in Spain last season however, the same formula is unlikely to be enough. Living that close to the edge, you eventually fall.

Finding the balance between continuity and evolution is the thinnest of tight-ropes. One that Simeone, for all his magic acts, has never walked before (most of his successes have been followed by departures and a regression season). Now he must do so in the area he struggles most with, manufacturing goals. All that being said, perhaps the most crucial advantage for Atleti in this title race is that Ronald Koeman, Julen Lopetegui and Carlo Ancelotti are all still working it out too.

This post was written by Ruairidh Barlow. Ruairidh discusses Spanish football every second Friday on the Road to Nowhere European Football Podcast. You can find Ruairidh on Twitter – @RuriBarlow.

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