In just two seasons, Radamel Falcao scored 68 goals in 83 starts for Atlético Madrid. It was often pointed out that the club were reliant on the Colombian as, for the majority of his time at Vicente Calderon, he was their only goal threat.
It was Falcao's goalscoring last season that fired Atlético to third in La Liga and, most importantly, into the Champions League. With a goals-per-game ratio of just over 0.80, there's no doubting his efficiency and how crucial he was to Atlético's success.
A glance at the trophies won by Atlético in the free-scoring hitman's two-year spell tells its own story. Falcao's first season with Los Colchoneros took in a second consecutive Europa League final (after victory with Porto in the previous campaign) against Athletic Bilbao, in which he netted a brace in a 3-0 win. The following season he obliterated Chelsea in the Super Cup with a hat-trick in a 4-1 win, and assisted Diego Costa's equaliser in Atletico's historic Copa del Rey win over city rivals Real Madrid.
But the £51m transfer to moneybags Monaco didn't go without questioning. Why on earth would he snub the Champions League for a newly-promoted Ligue 1 side? After all, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Chelsea were clambering over one another for his services in the summer. More importantly, though, how could Atlético replace the deadliest striker in the world?
Diego Simeone's side would have to spend big, it was agreed. But instead of signing the rumoured likes of Jackson Martinez, Javier Hernandez or even Luis Suarez, they pulled off one of the best deals of the summer by snapping up David Villa for €2.1m (although it could could rise to €5m).
After six matches of the campaign Atlético have netted 18 goals via seven different players – and that's La Liga's second-best goalscoring record behind Barcelona.
With Falcao in the line-up, Costa's influence often looked stifled, and it was clear that the 24-year-old Brazil international was not at his best. With David Villa alongside him, however, the changes have been drastic – Costa is fresh, vastly improved and back to his peak. His finishing is better and, despite the lingering Scrappy-Doo tendencies to fight with anything around him, it isn't difficult to see him becoming a star this season. He already has seven league goals to his name, yet last season it took him until April to reach that tally.
In terms of creativity, Falcao's loss could be a good thing. In the last two seasons every attack has gone through the powerful Colombian, but the quick passing combinations between the likes of Koke, Arda Turan and Gabi are now more effective with a wider array of outlets. Movement upfront is especially improved – Atlético's Spanish Supercup first leg against Barcelona being a case in point. Atléti's pressing was more noticeable, players covered for each other and, in turn, Barca were unable to create many clear chances. It took a poorly-defended Neymar header for them to break through.
Simeone's emphasis on team cohesion could prove to be a defining factor in how well Los Rojiblancos cope without Falcao. 'El Tigre' was not a defensive forward, but an ultimate poacher. This season Simeone has a starting XI of hard workers, including industrious duo Turan and Costa. The importance of this cannot be understated. Pressing to earn possession has been seen in the nine games already played, and is set to benefit the team this season.
Koke and Turan will likely be Atlético's most important players. Last season, Koke proved his talents with nine assists and three goals, finished with a reasonable pass completion rate of 81%, and will no doubt be looking to progress further this season. Another highly-rated, creative young Spanish midfielder (yawn, right?), his influence this season will be massive – the Spain U21 star already has seven assists and two goals this season.
Turkish winger Turan, meanwhile, is heading into his prime as one of the best left midfielders in the world. With the focus having rested on Falcao for the past two seasons, 26-year-old Turan has seemingly slipped under the radar – but all of that is about to change. This season he's already bagged three assists and two goals in his eight appearances.
The new Villa-Costa partnership isn't the only change Simeone has made. Over the summer Atlético signed Leo Baptistao, Josuha Guilavogui, Dani Aranzubia, Toby Alderweireld, Roberto and Jose Gimenez, all of whom add depth to this promising squad. Coupled this with the unpredictability of talented young players like Oliver Torres, Manquillo and Dani Aquino, and Simeone's men look well placed to cope with Falcao's departure.
Atlético have steadily improved since Simeone's reign began in 2011 (yet the Argentine has already held this post for longer than any of his previous coaching jobs). His side has the potential to do well without the striker nobody believed they could replace. Most importantly, they're the only team likely to break up the Big Two, and are even dark horses for the title.
They certainly haven't had things all their own way over the years but, finally, Atlético Madrid are showing the world that they can compete where it matters – even without the man who inspired a new wave of success.
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