Winners of five trophies between 2012 and 2014, Atletico Madrid were a title-winning machine at their best under Diego Simeone, a rock-solid defence and well-drilled attack upsetting the likes of Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Personnel changes caught up with the Colchoneros last year, however, ensuring they relinquished their La Liga title by the spring, and dropped out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals.
The club’s reaction was to spend big, investing €98 million in talent ranging from much-desired striker Jackson Martinez, to skilful attacker Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and returning league title hero Filipe Luis. Currently second in La Liga above Real Madrid, and with progress to the knockout stage of the Champions League guaranteed, it looks like that investment is starting to pay off. There is even talk that the players are convinced they can do something big this season.
And they aren’t alone. Here are five signs that Atletico Madrid are getting back to their best...
1. Griezmann now a consistent difference-maker
One of the big success stories at the Vicente Calderon last year was Simeone’s conversion of Antoine Griezmann from wide forward to killer striker, the coach helping him to produce his highest-scoring season as a professional. This year the Frenchman has continued in the same vein, delivering a string of match-clinching performances that evoke memories of Diego Costa in the 2012/13 La Liga campaign. Griezmann has 10 goals in all competitions, but the devil is in the detail. Atleti’s sole scorer in league wins against Las Palmas, Getafe, Sporting Gijon and Espanyol (most recently, below), he played the same role in both Champions League wins over Galatasaray.
The most impressive aspect of the striker’s game is his efficiency. It isn’t uncommon to see him hit the target with two thirds of his shots or higher. That kind of accuracy in front of goal is exactly what a team like Atletico that lives on fine margins needs to win trophies.
2. Getting over Arda is easier with Carrasco around
Arda Turan was unique for Atleti with his ability to slow down play, change pace and wriggle his way out of danger, helping them to turn a backs-to-the-wall defensive moment into an attack at the other end.
Players knew that in difficult phases of play they could give the ball to the Turk and trust him to bail them out of trouble, so his departure to Barcelona was significant.
It took Simeone time to pin down an alternative, but it now looks like he has his man. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco was given little playing time in his first months in Spain, and only when he was subbed on at half-time in the 1-1 draw with Real Madrid in October did the extent of his talent become apparent. The energetic cameo was followed with a first league goal against Real Sociedad, earning him a starting berth in a huge game with Valencia. In that fixture the Belgian stole the show, running full speed at los Che’s defence, twisting them inside and out, and picking up another goal.
Carrasco has quickly won the hearts of fans with his ingenuity and energy, and more pertinently, has also won over Simeone. The coach has found a player who can make his switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 function properly. A true winger who can beat opponents in a one-vs-one and consistently stretch play, he is quickly becoming a key piece in the Atletico puzzle, and will be a major headache for rivals this season.
3. Koke is finally thriving in a central role
While Atletico lost many of the key figures from their dream 2013/14 season, one of them was never in doubt of staying. That year Koke assisted 13 goals in all competitions – more than any other player in the squad – and as a diehard fan who came through their academy, he was quick to commit his future to Atleti, extending his contract last year until 2018.
The expectation has long been that Koke would move away from a position on the left and into a central role, where he would in theory be better placed to pull the strings of the team and dictate its game. Until recently that hadn’t really happened, but now the Spaniard is hitting his stride as a central midfielder.
A combination of the shift to 4-3-3, the return of Filipe Luis and emergence of Carrasco means that Koke has two intelligent talents to link up with while playing on the left side of a central three.
The results are clear. Against Galatasaray, Koke completed 107 passes, more than any other player in the last round of the Champions League. With 63 in the final third, he managed more in the key area of the pitch than anyone else in that competition all season.
Atleti aren’t known for their elaborate possession game, so recent displays suggest a significant step for Simeone in his attempts to make them more elaborate, and by extension, more difficult to stop for opponents who look to shut up shop. That should mean more points on the table, and a better campaign.
4. Defence is back to its impenetrable best
The root of Atleti’s style under Simeone has always been solidity at the back, and when that discipline is maintained consistently, it tends to mean titles. Last season the Colchoneros had a few notable wobbles in that regard, shipping multiple goals against rivals of a significantly lower standard like Levante and Real Sociedad. Those games demand a more expansive game from the Rojiblancos, but an inability to keep the defence solid at the same time cost precious points, and led to the defending La Liga champions finishing a whole 16 off top spot.
This season, Atleti are back to their watertight best. Their six goals conceded in La Liga is half the amount Barcelona have shipped, and among Europe’s biggest leagues their defensive numbers are only bettered by Bayern Munich. On top of that, Atletico have taken four clean sheets in their last four games, and conceded only three goals in their last nine in all competitions. Getting past their defence is incredibly difficult.
Crucial to that resurgence is Gabi. The veteran had a bad season last year: he often looked off the pace, mistimed tackles he would have previously made, and was sent off twice. The 32-year-old midfielder seems to have rediscovered his timing and touch, however, a positive development for the defence behind him.
The change in shape has certainly helped him, with Atleti now winning the ball higher up the pitch instead of over-relying on defending their area like in previous seasons. Simeone admitted that last week, observing that “with the 4-3-3 we’ve improved in our pressure, and the midfielders are reading things better”.
5. The best is yet to come
On top of the clear progress Atleti have already made in recent months, what will please Simeone even more is the sensation that excellent results have been achieved despite many of his most talented players not yet finding their best form.
Centre-forward Martinez is one example. The striker has yet to find his feet in Spain, but it is highly unlikely that someone who has averaged 30 goals a season in his three years in Europe will go much longer without scoring regularly. When he does, Atleti will be significantly stronger.
Simeone can also expect big things from playmaker Angel Correa, who has already shown flashes of brilliance this year, as well as team-mates Oliver Torres and Saul Niguez. The latter two are among the most promising young players in Spain, and when given a chance against Espanyol last weekend, they more than stood up to the challenge. A smart run and well-weighted ball from Oliver assisted Griezmann’s winner in that game, while Saul’s confident and competent showing will make his coach optimistic that Atleti can get over the loss of Tiago to a leg injury.
Heading into December with Champions League qualification assured, first place in their group still possible, and a league position that splits Barcelona and Real Madrid, Atleti are already looking good on all fronts, and the details suggest things can get even better. More elaborate going forward than they have ever been while still managing to keep their defence water-tight at the back, their only remaining task is to take more of the chances on goal they are creating. Should that happen, they would cause problems for any team in Europe. With miracle-worker Simeone in charge you wouldn’t bet against it.
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