Five Questions - Atletico Madrid

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Naz Majeed 

1. The Manager. What has Diego Simeone brought to Atletico Madrid?

A few weeks ago, football fans around the world were astounded when the fact emerged that Diego Simeone was the highest-paid manager in world football, and by some margin. Clearly outstripping Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Zinedine Zidane, Antonio Conte, and even Jose Mourinho, Simeone at the top of the salary standings was some kind of head-scratcher. Everyone can see the passion he brings and instils in his side, with the Atletico players as one warrior to the very end. Simeone has also moulded the side into a supreme defensive unit, while not being simply a case of parking the bus or employing the traditional Italian Catenaccio system. 

Structure, stability, and solidity are the key components of Simeone’s defensive philosophy, seeking to work as a unit to snuff out chance-creation, with midfielders and forwards involved in every facet of the defence. Having been at the club since December 2011, Simeone has coaxed workmanlike performances out of talented attackers like Arda Turan, Radamel Falcao, Fernando Torres, Ángel Correa, and Yannick Carrasco, while also relying on the natural grit and graft of players like Diego Costa, Antoine Griezmann, Raul Jimenez, David Villa, Mario Mandzukic, all of whom have been loyal and successful servants to the Simeone way.

Having won La Liga in 2013/14, the Copa Del Rey in 2012/13, two time Europa League winners, and twice reaching Champions League finalists, Simeone’s status as Atletico manager is close to impenetrable, especially as he also won the league and cup double as an Atletico player in 1996. A true club legend, and one who has continued his success after the transition to the touchline.

2. The New Signings. How have Felix, Llorente, and Trippier fared?

The list of forwards and wingers above is missing a certain Joao Felix, the club’s record signing. Arriving from Benfica for over €127m, much was expected of the Portuguese wonderkid, who had a breakout season in 2018/19, leading to links to Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona. Quick, skilful, and able to score and create, he seemed a perfect fit for an attacking side that valued flair and individual brilliance.

His move to Atletico came as quick a shock, then, and while he started the season relatively well, Felix suffered an ankle injury in October, curbing his progress. The next few weeks were difficult for the player, with Simeone unable to find a way to make full use of his talents, before another injury saw Felix miss more games, though he was able to return for Atletico’s elimination of Liverpool in the Champions League.

Marcos Llorente joined from cross-town rivals Real Madrid, for a sizable fee as well, but the midfielder - who has played in both attacking and defensive roles - has found life easier at Atletico than his more illustrious fellow signing. Not always a part of the starting lineup, Llorente has been quietly impressive, scoring twice in that game against Liverpool in a game that showcased both sides of his game.

Kieran Trippier’s arrival from Tottenham Hotspur was an intriguing one, but the English right-back has cemented his place in the side, with his hard running and crossing - be it from open play or set-pieces - immediately beneficial to Simeone’s side, with Trippier bagging an assist on his debut. He did, however, become the first Englishman in over 15 years to miss a penalty for a non-English side in the Champions League after missing a spot-kick against Lokomotiv Moscow.

 

3. The Current Squad. What are the problems faced?

The most pressing problem for Atletico now is the fact they are outside the top 4, and run the risk of missing out on the Champions League. While only a point behind Real Sociedad in 4th, the side’s performances have been largely unconvincing, and the fact that they have conceded more goals than Real Madrid will be thoroughly embarrassing for the defensively-minded Simeone.

Losing Diego Godin, Filipe Luís, Juanfran, Lucas Hernandez, and Rodri in the summer meant that their entire defence aside from goalkeeper Jan Oblak had to be replaced. In Lodi, Felipe, Tripper, and Jose Gimenez they still have a more-than-capable unit, Gimenez, in particular, tipped for superstardom, though as a new foursome they still need time to gel and grow accustomed to each other. At least they have Jan Oblak. For now, at least.

 

Further up the field, the loss of Griezmann to Barcelona has hurt them as well, even if the deal was something everyone might have expected. The Frenchman was uniquely gifted and suited for Simeone’s system, able and willing to press and tackle, dribble and create, score and inspire. With Felix’s struggles this season, Atletico have failed to score in 9 of their 27 league games, and are the lowest-scoring team in the top 9 in La Liga. Outside the bottom 7 in the league, only Athletic Bilbao have scored fewer than Atletico.

4. The Solutions to the Problems. What do Atletico do?

Get the most out of Joao Felix.

Alvaro Morata currently has 12 goals for Atletico this season, but as his time at Juventus, Real Madrid, and Chelsea has proven, the Spanish striker is inconsistent and cannot regularly be depended upon to fire goals throughout a league season, even if he has the ability to change a big game. In Angel Correa and Thomas Lemar Atletico have two more skilled attackers, but neither have the sheet all-round talent of Joao Felix.

With Saul Niguez, Thomas Partey, and Koke forming an all-action midfield (along with Marcos Llorente), a coach with the experience and ability of Diego Simeone must be able to find a way to accommodate his best forward and make the most of his undeniable ability.

Atletic have drawn 12 of their 27 league games so far this season, an appalling statistic that may yet be what keeps them from the Champions League. With 5 0-0s and another 5 1-1s, the need for goals and creativity is clear, and their answer is already in-house. 

5. The Final Grade: C

Out of the Champions League places, Atletico’s season may prove a disappointing or even disastrous one by their own high standards. Without the allure - and prize money - of Champions League football, it will be difficult to refresh their squad, especially if prospects like Thomas Lemar, Jan Oblak, and Jose Gimenez are lured away. Simeone’s insistence on his (historically successful) style may be what is holding them back, with Joao Felix visibly uncomfortable with what is asked of him, an observation that may also dissuade others from joining the club, in favour of sides that play a more progressive or expansive game. Should Simeone and Atletico turn it around, their grade will improve dramatically (they are, after all, still in the Champions League itself) but if they finish outside the top 4, they will be in very real trouble indeed, with more than just the five questions here needing to be asked.
 


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