While most of the transfer news this summer is focused on Real Madrid, it seems we’ve all forgotten about their local rivals. Last summer, Atletico spent a huge £141 million in an attempt to overtake a defensive Barcelona side and a Madrid side who lost their top scorer. This high spending included £63 million on Monaco winger Thomas Lemar, who could add some creativity from the wide areas they desperately needed. When adding these extra additions on top of the established players, it seemed this was one of Atletico’s best chances of reclaiming La Liga.
This season has not turned out as expected for Atletico. While finishing behind a Barcelona side that continues to be dragged by arguably the best player to ever play the game is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s more in the manner of the finish. They spent so much money on improving an attack that became slightly predictable, relying heavily on Antoine Griezmann to drag them through a lot of games. Nothing seems to have changed in that regard. Griezmann was their top scorer with 15, as expected, but when looking at who is behind him is troubling. Morata is second with 6, and behind the Spaniard is Saul, Correa and Godin. It’s been a consistent issue we will cover later. They’ve scored fewer goals (55) compared to last season (58), and there have been a lot of games where their lack of attack has let them down. Their start to the season displays this perfectly, with a lacklustre draw to Valencia and a poor showing against Celta showing Los Rojiblancos beginning to decline.
Let’s look at the team, piece by piece, to see where it has all gone wrong for Simeone’s side, starting with the defence. The beginning of the season saw the departure of Sime Vrsaljko. While he had a fantastic World Cup with Croatia, he didn’t show the same quality at club level and in hindsight, seemed wise letting him leave. This brought the arrival of Colombian right-back Santiago Arias from PSV. The defender has shown himself to be a good defender while also being a great attacking option with solid chance creation and decent dribble numbers. He arrived for a fair price of £9 million and would hopefully replace Juanfran. While Arias has started 20 games, 2 more than his Spanish teammate, it should be higher.
This nicely leads on to the biggest problem with Atletico Madrid, being the game time to the senior players. Simeone is by far one of the best defensive coaches in Europe. He has built a side that hasn’t conceded over 30 goals in the league since the 2012/13 season. That’s 6 seasons of a nearly imperious defence. This backline has remained consistent with Godin, Juanfran and Luis all being part of the same squad that won the league 5 years ago. While they have aged relatively well, this season has highlighted how they aren’t the same players. Atletico have slowly been facing more shots per game each year. This season, they faced 11.4 shots per game, a slight increase from last season where they faced 11.7, the season in which they changed grounds which would take time to adjust. During the defence’s peak years (2014-16) they were facing less than 10 shots per game, never allowing their opponents to get in good positions thanks to their wide players overloading the central areas and making chance creation very difficult. Atletico have been getting worse defensively, and it is mostly down to the defenders ageing. The three players mentioned earlier are all now over 33. They are so far past their prime that is has hurt the rest of the team. While Luis and Juanfran were never fantastic attackers, they at least gave the side width in the final third, but they cannot do that anymore. They aren’t able to cover the same ground as they once could. They have had to be protected and has resulted in the rest of the team suffering. I can sympathise with Lucas Hernandez suffering from knee injuries all season, but when you allow Jonny Otto and Theo Hernandez all to leave in the last 2 seasons then that same sympathy turns into criticism.Embed from Getty Images
Their midfield has been very good thanks to the arrival of Rodri and Thomas Partey having an excellent season. While both are not as good in transitioning the ball as you see from Ndombele and Anguissa, they are great at recovering the ball and quickly moving it to the more talented attackers. Rodri has truly been fantastic. He arrived being defensively solid while possessing a great passing range and has brought this to Atletico. He has effectively replaced Gabi while keeping the same aggression and bite he gave to Atleti during his best years. However, they are facing a massive problem being both players are likely to leave this summer. Bayern Munich and Manchester City are both looking to sign Rodri this summer with his release clause making him available for €60 million. Partey is available for a reasonable price, with his £43.5 million buyout clause making him a prime target for Arsenal and Manchester United. It would leave the club without their starting two midfielders, players who formed a solid partnership in midfield.
While their defence has been getting worse, it’s their attack that is by far the biggest problem. To say that Simeone has struggled with pacey players who rely on good dribbling and flair to contribute in attack, is an understatement. When looking at some of the players he has signed in the past, guys who arrived with high expectations but immediately were dropped in favour of more disciplined and less exciting players. Yannick Carrasco, Nico Gaitan, Gelson Martins and Diogo Jota all have left the club in recent years and it does highlight how unwilling Simeone is in changing how his side play in the future. He’s always preferred playing central midfielders in wide areas like Saul, Turan, Koke and Augusto Fernandez. While this approach did work earlier on in Simeone’s time at the club, it has made them far less threatening than they could be. Atleti have had some good talent arrive at their club, but Simeone has always been unwilling to use them. Thomas Lemar is the latest to suffer due to the manager’s lack of ambition. While the Frenchman has dropped off since that title-winning season for Monaco, it’s easy to see that he is struggling in such a pragmatic system. His chance creation and dribbling has reached a career low, and only managed to contribute to 6 goals in 29 appearances in La Liga, not the output you expect from a player who was brought in for over £60 million. While Lemar’s struggles could be down to the player, Gelson Martins suffered even more by the hands of Simeone. The Portuguese international only started a single game in the league for Atletico. This was a talented player who was brought in at a cut-price due the off the field antics that took place at his former club. He was an added bonus on top of a summer which saw improvements in the squad. Simeone instantly deemed him insufficient and Martins departed in January, where he had a good end of the season with Monaco. With Carrasco falling out with the manager and Gaitan rarely being given opportunities, it displays a destination that any winger should avoid unless they want their career to stagnate.Embed from Getty Images
At the beginning of the season, their centre forward options were a problem. While Griezmann remained productive as ever, it was his striking partner that was the issue. Diego Costa’s return to Madrid will go down as one of the worst signings of the decade. They signed an ageing forward for £60 million, who has been awful. This season, he has been taking 1 shot per game, less than Partey and Saul. He’s creating less than a chance and winning far less aerial duels than he should be. His shambolic form resulted in Morata’s arrival. It’s Los Rojiblancos third attempt at signing a Spanish forward from Chelsea, and so far it’s their most successful attempt. Morata has been superb since his return to Madrid, scoring 6 in 13 starts. He’s adding that aggression and aerial dominance that Simeone has been desperate for since Mandzukic’s departure back in 2015.
While Morata was a bright spark, another player who seems to be struggling is Angel Correa. The Argentine has been a promising player since his arrival from San Lorenzo back in 2014. He has always been a very good dribbler who could cover multiple positions but has failed to establish himself as a regular starter. While he did play 36 games last season, he only started 20 games. Considering the lack of pace in the side, you’d expect him to start more. When he’s started, he’s been very good, completing 3 dribbles per 90 and taking 1.5 shots from the right midfield. These numbers are really promising and show a player too good to be sitting on the bench. It was rumoured back in May the forward has offers on the table and he should leave the club. Correa is 24-years-old and isn’t a prospect anymore. He should be moving to a club that will start him regularly, so he doesn’t waste the best years of his career.Embed from Getty Images
With Griezmann, Godin, Juanfran, Felipe Luis, Hernandez, Rodri, Partey and Correa all having futures certainly or potentially away from the club, it leaves a massive rebuilding job for Atletico. While this defensive style has been renowned and praised since Simeone’s arrival, it seems many forgot what won Atletico the league back in 2014, goals. Last season they conceded the most goals since that memorable title win, but the difference was they scored 77 goals, a number that still hasn’t been beaten since Griezmann’s arrival, arguably their best forward this decade. As the players Simeone loved and trusted all began leaving the club, he seemed to sacrifice goals in an attempt to prevent conceding them. Simeone needs to stop setting his team up in such a pragmatic way. Scoring 50 goals isn’t enough to win a league dominated by attacking sides. It’s worrying that there is a possibility that his legacy at this club could be tarnished thanks to this defensive first football. His side has always been defensive, but they used to be able to score goals and play a good style of football. Even with all of the talent leaving this summer, I trust the club to adequately replace them but the same trust cannot be placed with Simeone in pushing them forward to finally reclaim the title they’ve been desperate for.