Are Atletico Madrid strong enough to mount another La Liga title charge?
With the league in its embryonic stage, it is of course difficult to predict who will win the title; Eibar and Celta Vigo being currently joint-top of the La Liga is testament to that. But joining them on maximum returns from the two games played in Spain so far are two more usual suspects – Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.
Last year’s treble winning Catalans will not give up their domestic crown easily and Real Madrid, who flexed their muscles with a 5-0 demolition of Real Betis, will challenge once again. The presence of the two biggest clubs residing in the upper echelons is a given in Spain; but could Atletico, who split their hegemony by winning the league in 2014 but finished 16 points behind the champions last term, threaten their dominance once again?
Winning strongly at the Pijuan
Their 1-0 victory on opening day over newly-promoted Las Palmas, who had not played in the Spanish top-flight since 2002, was unconvincing; it was practically handed to them via a deflected free-kick by last season’s top-scorer Antoine Griezmann. The trip to Sevilla, where Unai Emery’s side had lost just once (to Real Madrid in May) since a 1-4 reversal to Barcelona in February 2014 – a remarkable run of just 1 defeat in 27 league games at the Roman Sanchez Pijuan – would be a much greater test of Atletico’s early season shape.
The Madrid side, however, passed with flying colours, coming away with a 0-3 win with goals from Koke, his first in 6 months, Gabi and Jackson Martinez. Sevilla would have their chances, notably in the second half after falling behind, but the visitors, in true Atletico fashion, remained resolute. In the end, class would tell.
Martinez, on as a late substitute for the struggling Fernando Torres, was the epitome of the gap in quality between the two sides, clinically taking advantage of space on the edge of the box to curl a 25-yard strike past goalkeeper Beto to wrap things up. The Atletico bench and manager Diego Simeone expressed their delight on the touchline.
Martinez could be a splendid signing
The Colombian’s first goal for his new club following the £25 million switch from Porto would have been much to Simeone’s satisfaction. He watched his new striker get off the mark early, making a statement after a subdued performance on debut against Las Palmas.
Martinez hit 92 goals from 132 games in Portugal – impressive by any standard. It’s no surprise that Atletico have installed their faith in him to replicate the form of Diego Costa in 2013-14 and fire them to a title challenge given that the experiment with Mario Mandzukic, this summer sold to Juventus, was abandoned after just one year.
Fernando Torres was given a hero’s welcome back to the Calderon in January and he did show bright signs of form under Simeone. But his rapid decline in recent years means he can no longer be relied upon to be a regular source of goals.
Griezmann may have top-scored last term with 25 goals, but he wasn’t signed to be the main goal-scorer; instead, he was brought in to fill the void left behind by David Villa in operating between the midfield and the strikers to scheme with speed and guile. The capture of Martinez, who can lead the line with pace and power, is designed to ease that burden, and Simeone has entrusted Griezmann with a free role as a deeper-lying attacking midfielder charged with knitting the play together.
The Frenchman’s fine balance, close control and trickery are central to Atletico’s penchant under Simeone for sitting back and soaking up pressure and then breaking quickly. Griezmann’s presence allows them to bridge the gap between the two areas of the team.
New signings give more options in attack and midfield
In the absence of the constant rabid harrying and pressure that Costa placed on opposition defenders and the irrepressible outlet he offered for counter-attacks, Atletico scored less and conceded more last season than they did in the title-winning campaign of 13-14.
The use of Mandzukic as a target man was a failure too; the Croatian’s lack of mobility in comparison to Costa meant Simeone had to use a more patient, intricate possession-based approach which involved roaming full-backs and a higher defensive line.
It was bold but it didn’t really work. But now, Martinez leading the line with a goal-scoring touch as well as the hard graft that fits in with Simeone’s demands harks back to the Atletico of the earlier days in the Argentine’s reign.
The signing of the 21-year-old Luciano Vietto, for £14 million from Villarreal, also fits into that reversion of style, as he brings with him intelligent movement and clever link-up play, as well as high work-rate and goals – he netted 12 times in his first year in Spain.
Given the raw nature of his talent, the budding form of Oliver Torres and the promise of Saul Niguez, Vietto is likely to be used in rotation. But he, together with Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco who arrives from Monaco for a similar fee, will offer Simeone variety in wider areas. They give him the option of positioning his two new acquisitions either side of Martinez in a 4-3-3 or partnering Griezmann with the Colombian striker in a more rigid 4-4-2.
The variety of options will permit Simeone to implement the change in approach he acknowledged was necessary after last season whilst rediscovering the collective drive that was often missing last term.
The excellent Koke, who has played the first two games on the left-flank, is central to Simeone’s flexibility; his wonderful understanding of the game allows him to play anywhere across the midfield. The manager would have also been pleased to watch the 23-year-old boost his confidence by getting off the mark against Sevilla.
Meanwhile, the solid, long-standing partnership of Tiago Mendes and captain Gabi will hold the midfield together with steely determination and bite in the centre of the field.
Looking much stronger at the back
Jan Oblak produced some impressive form at the back end of last season after waiting until the winter break to dislodge Miguel Moya. And with the Slovenia international now established as number 1, Simeone doesn’t have to worry about his goalkeeping position as much as last year, when he was tasked with replacing the Thibaut Courtois-shaped void.
Oblak’s strong performance in Seville, where he made an outstanding stop to deny Coke, further strengthened his grip on the position. He was helped by the Uruguayan centre-back pairing of Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin, who will be left to form a first-choice partnership after Joao Miranda was let out on loan to Inter Milan in the summer.
Both are aggressive, battling defenders who like the combative side of defending, and so should thrive with Simeone reverting to a deeper, more disciplined defensive line. But with Stefan Savic providing cover following a £17 million move from Fiorentina, Simeone has the option of calling on a player who is more comfortable playing out from the back should he desire patience and more composure on the ball.
Felipe Luis, the left-back who played an important part in Atletico’s title success of 18 months ago, has been signed back from Chelsea after a disappointing spell at Stamford Bridge. He will provide competition at full-back to Jesus Gamez and Juanfran, who have started the campaign there, and Guilherme Siqueira.
So can they be genuine title challengers?
Simeone’s actions this summer have been seemingly based on freshening up a squad that appeared short of ideas last season, and introducing more competition for places in addition to providing more options in terms of system changes. Los Colchoneros have started the season well, and if Simeone can find the right balance as well as the best form from the likes of Martinez, Griezmann, Koke and Godin on a consistent basis, there is no reason Atletico can’t challenge once again.
It’s true that another player exodus has occurred with Arda Turan, Mario Suarez, Raul Jimenez, Raul Garcia and Miranda all departing. But Simeone has spent the summer negotiating some of the most impressive business in Spain to forge himself a varied, well-covered squad that can play with the energy and quick transition that was present in the team of 2013-14.
That side won the title; if Simeone can get it right this time, then Atletico can be crowned champions once again.