Last season, Atletico Madrid finished the Spanish La Liga with their second-highest ever point tally – 88. However, the club still fell short and finished third behind their only two competitors in the Spanish league – Barcelona and Real Madrid. Achieving a record second-highest points tally is something of an achievement, but the utter disappointment that the club faces internally after finishing third, and a defeat in the Champions League final against crosstown rivals Real Madrid, is an indication of how much this club has achieved in the last five years.
Atletico Madrid reached the pinnacle of heartbreak last season when they lost the Champions League final to Real for the second time in three seasons. Over the last few years, Diego Simeone’s commitment to become a top club manager, with trophies in his cabinet, has slowly shifted from dream to reality. Similar to Jurgen Klopp’s rise with Borussia Dortmund, Simeone broke the status quo in La Liga, challenging both Barcelona and Real Madrid to the league title, and also shattered this Spanish duopoly at the European level. In 2011, he won the Europa League, in 2013 the Copa Del Rey, in 2014 the Spanish La Liga, and was the runner up in the Champions League in 2014 and 2016.
Simeone’s style is viewed as the anti-thesis to the beautiful game, most commonly pitted against the likes of possession-football teams such as Barcelona. It has been a reaction, rather than a leading action in the general direction of footballing trends. Similar to the Dortmund's renaissance under Klopp, Simeone’s style of play involves structured – often rigid – and disciplined roles. Last season, he lost a number of first team squad players, including Arda Turan, Mario Mandzukic, Toby Alderweireld and Jackson Martinez. Since June 2011 – Simeone was appointed in December 2011 – Atleti have been involved with multiple high profile departures such as Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and David De Gea, who opted to leave the club at a time when each individual player was a mainstay in their first XI. Simeone, an astute manager on the pitch, has done extremely well to cope with losing first team players.
Rebuilding the squad
The Argentine, a remembered as firebrand during his time as a player, has inculcated the same gritty values in his players. This year, he has brought in Sevilla striker Kevin Gamiero (for €32 million), Benfica winger Nico Gaitan (for €25 million) and Croatian right-back Sime Vrsaljko from Sassuolo (for €16 million.) He has groomed both Koke and Saul Niguez as fine midfield players, who both have the ability to play through the centre of the pitch and attack the wider areas. Both youngsters are used as wide attacking players, with the likes of a more experienced central midfield pairing of Gabi and Augusto Fernandez preferred.
The options on the bench are strong, with Jose Giminez and Yannick Carrasco both capable of stepping up into the first team seamlessly. A lot will rely on the crown jewel in Atleti’s side, their France international and 2016 European Championship top goal-scorer, Antoine Griezmann. The French star scored 32 times in 53 appearances last season and is Simeone’s creative spark – the perfect postman, delivering the ball to the entire team with deft touches and also finishing with ease.
Last season, Atletico conceded only 18 goals. Only Bayern Munich conceded less (17) across leagues in Italy, Spain, Germany and England. At home, Atleti have bossed more or less every minuted they’ve played, dropping only nine out of 57 points. However, on the road, they have conceded nearly double that number (17). Defeats in the league against Malaga, Levante, and Sporting Gijon were prime examples of their lax form away from home.
Atleti have been on a roller-coaster ride in the last few seasons, one that’s seen them drop easy points and, yet, still find enough positives to remain afloat, still challenging for the Spanish league title, and trying to claim a spot among Europe’s elite clubs. Atleti have never had a problem reaching the last hurdle, but en route their occasional dip in form has costed them over the course of the season. Simeone now commands enough respect among the top bosses to earn himself a job at any leading European club, but his journey with Atletico has still not scaled its greatest height.