When we look back at the summer of 2019 in a few years time we’ll talk about how this summer was pivotal in the history of Atlético Madrid under Diego Simeone: either for better or for worse. The history of football is riddled with the examples where a team loses a couple of influential players and they find it hard to recover from it. But what makes this situation of Atlético Madrid this summer very intriguing is that the team lost four or five of influential players who have been very pivotal in raising the club from years of mediocrity in the Spanish football to one of the European giants of the last decade.
Convincing Simeone to stay and a move to the new stadium means that they can’t have many more years of being in the oblivion anymore. The Argentine manager is the centrepiece of the Atlético Madrid footballing structure and as long as they continue to back him, the transition shouldn’t be painful. Rather, after a surprisingly successful summer, there is a sense of optimism regarding the new project at the club. In this season preview in form of a scout report, we find out what we can expect from them this season by doing a tactical analysis depending upon how their summer has been this year.
So how did they do last season?
Even though they finished in second place in La Liga last season, finishing above Real Madrid for the second season in a row, it was widely accepted that the club had a very poor season. They never really challenged for the title the whole season as they finished 11 points behind Barcelona, who were not exactly very convincing with their season.
In the Champions League, they suffered a humiliating 4-0 rout against Borussia Dortmund in the group stages before being knocked out in the last-16 after blowing a 2-0 lead against Juventus. It was the same story in the Copa del Rey as they exited in the last-16 at the hands of Girona.
Their season was blighted by numerous injuries to their defenders and overshadowed by the speculation that Antoine Griezmann was close to leaving for Barcelona.
Forwards: Diego Costa, Nikola Kalinić, Álvaro Morata, Ivan Šaponjić, João Félix
Midfielders: Koke, Saúl Ñíguez, Vitolo, Thomas Lemar, Héctor Herrera, Thomas Partey, Ángel Correa, Marcos Llorente, Rodrigo Riquelme
Defenders: Kieran Trippier, Šime Vrsaljko, Stefan Savić, Santiago Arias, Felipe, José Giménez, Mario Hermoso, Renan Lodi, Francisco Montero
Goalkeepers: Antonio Adán, Jan Oblak
Last season really saw the end of the impregnable trio of Diego Godin, Felipe Luis and Juanfran who had consistently been the three omnipresent pieces of the Diego Simeone defence. Last year’s defensive stability had more to do with tactics rather than the elite level of these faithful servants of the club. In terms of games Jose Giménez missed 19; Stefan Savić missed 18; Filipe Luis missed 13; Diego Godin missed 10, and Juanfran missed nine. Thus, the entire season consisted of Simeone somehow putting together whoever was fit along with the extraterrestrial performances of Jan Oblak.
This season saw the departure of whole defensive core of the team with the exits of Godin, Luis, and Juanfran. Lucas Hernández who has been touted as one of the most promising defenders in the European football was meant to take over the mantle starting this season but he too left for Bayern Munich for a reported fee of €80 million.
These departures, though monumental, couldn’t have come at a better time for the club as the ageing trio hadn’t been at their best for the past couple of seasons. Atlético suffered especially from the decline in the levels of the full-backs and their attack got more and more laboured.
Simeone has moved quickly and smartly to snap up Felipe from Porto and Mario Hermoso from Espanyol for the central defence. Along with Stefan Savić and Jose Giménez, that’s a really tenacious and strong depth for that position. The addition of Hermoso specifically is a coup as they managed to snap up someone who is comfortable with the ball. He averages more dribbles per game than Savić, more assists per game than Giménez and averages more key passes than the both of them. He is also the only left-footed centre-back in the whole team.
In the right-back position, they have signed Kieran Trippier who is a great addition for the team in front of Arias who is more of a defensive right back. Trippier has an experience of playing in an attacking role under Mauricio Pochettino with something which Juanfran find couldn’t provide consistently the last season. He starts with an advantage over Arias due to his set-piece ability which can be a difference-maker. At left-back Renan Lodi is the only option they’ve signed this summer so it’s a no-brainer who starts in that position.
In the midfield department, Rodri Hernandéz has been the only real impactful departure. The Spaniard was one of the best midfielders in La Liga: drawing comparisons with Sergio Busquets. But he’s moved to Manchester City where his talents would be better utilized. For their part, Atlético Madrid hasn’t really lost in that deal as they managed to use Rodri’s €70 million money to get Marcos Llorente from Real Madrid for a smaller fee of €40 million. Llorente was one of Real Madrid’s standout players from the disastrous last season, putting in standout performances in the defensive midfield role under Santiago Solari. This on top of his great 2016/17 season at Alaves, means that Atlético managed to replace Rodri without much talent drop off.
Elsewhere the addition of Héctor Herrera on a free transfer could prove out to one of the best pound for pound value transfers in the Simeone era. The Mexican box to box midfielder adds tons of energy, pace, dynamism to Atlético’s midfield. His runs in from deep will provide another tactical option for Simeone’s sluggish attacking system and tactics. Rest, Koke and Saúl are set to play more centrally this season rather than been shunned to the wings.
This is the only area of concern for Atlético going into the season. The departure of Griezmann is more monumental than perhaps some fans think. The French attacker has consistently been one of the best players in the world for the past few years. Not only was he the best source of goal for their terrible attack, but he was also the fulcrum for their sluggish attacking scheme.
Atlético Madrid has gone for João Félix, the Portuguese teen sensation for the club record of €126 million. Though he isn’t a like-for-like replacement for the Frenchman, the teenager has shown last season why Atlético made him the fourth most expensive transfer of all time. He has the ability to play off the striker much like Griezmann, often dribbling through tight spaces and looking for a killer pass. He’s also a great goal scorer and has the ability to replace Griezmann’s output.
Other than him, there’s still some concern about the chance creation and goals in the team. Diego Costa hasn’t really lived up to his standards from his first stint at the club. Though Álvaro Morata has been great for them since his loan move from Chelsea, he’s not been a consistent 20/25 plus goal scorer that you can rely upon.
Looking beyond that, there aren’t many goals, or worse yet: any sort of offensive creation. Simeone has been aware of this issue for quite some time and thus the constant links for a move to James Rodriguez. Theoretically, the Colombian would solve quite a few of their issues. He’s a brilliant attacker, capable of playing anywhere across the attack. He also brings in the goals from the midfield, something the team has lacked ever since the departure of Arda Turan. They have the cash to burn this summer, and signing the Colombian would turn them from a top-three team to a title contender. He would take off the offensive load off of Félix who is still very young and coming from less than a season of top-flight football from a lower-level league. Putting all the attacking scheme ‘eggs’ in the Félix ‘basket’ would be too much pressure for a kid who theoretically wouldn’t hit his peak for another seven to eight years.
Preseason: Formation and Tactics
The preseason matches and training sessions have the fans excited due to a variety of tactical tweaks being done by Simeone. The first two preseason games have seen the use of their classic 4-4-2 formation with Costa and Morata up front, flanked by Lemar and Félix at the wings. They are protected by the midfield duo of Llorente and Saúl. In defence, Hermoso has partnered Savić in the middle with Lodi and Trippier as the full-backs.
Simeone has also been rumoured to practice with a 4-4-2 diamond which would incorporate their three best midfielders in Koke, Saúl and Llorente with Félix playing at the tip of the diamond where he can use his skills to link up the play to Morata and Costa. The width in that system would be provided by the full-backs which are very attack-minded. There have also been rumours of using the classic 4-3-3 system in some matches against the lower level opposition with parked defences to fix the issue of Atlético’s strained build-up play from the last season. The classic wingers in such a system would stretch opposition defences given the new-look midfield ability to score more.
Other than the system change, it’s been a little too early to see any other tactical changes from the last season. They failed to score against Guadalajara but managed to score three against Numancia playing the 4-4-2. The build-up play in the attacking phase followed the same pattern from the last season where forwards occupied the central defenders while the wingers Lemar and Félix would drop into the half-spaces to receive the ball. From there they would either look to play ball in behind or look for the overlapping run of the wing-back.
In the defensive phase, the players would drop into a deep block, snuffing out space in the middle, thus forcing the opposition to play through the wings. They kept the distance between the defensive and the midfield line very small this making it very difficult to play through them.
There is still a lot of work to be done in their offensive scheme this season to fix the creativity issues. Hence, Simeone’s trial of various formations in their training sessions. But we’re yet to see them in any pre-season games yet.
When it was obvious that Atlético was set to lose the heavyweights like Godin, Luis and Juanfran, along with the exceptional talents of Griezmann and Lucas, who have been synonymous with the Simeone project, there was a general concern on their ability to rebuild. But as seen by the tactical analysis: it is a testament to their planning that not only they managed to replace almost everyone without any significant drop in quality, but that they are genuinely considered one of the contenders for the La Liga title and a deep run into the Champions League. Whether this actually happens or whether filling the shoes of the departures of the club legends will be too much of a task, its something we will find out soon.
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