The decline of Atletico Madrid's famous attacking philosophy
Few clubs have an association with top class strikers quite like Atletico Madrid. Or at least, that used to be the case.
Gone are the days of Radamel Falcao, Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan, a young Fernando Torres, Christian Vieri and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink.
Though Diego Costa has returned to the club, there is no denying the club has been devoid of a top striker ever since the Spaniard left for Chelsea several years ago.
While there has been the emergence of Antoine Griezmann as a goalscorer, he is by no means of the same mold as those before him. Griezmann is not a centre-forward, instead, he’s more of a goal-scoring, free roaming forward who aims to cause problems in the penalty box with his runs.
You would have to go back to Costa's last two seasons before moving to Chelsea for the last time Atleti possessed a prolific hitman. There have been more failures than successes, and it’s curious to wonder why the production line of strikers has suddenly come to a halt at the club.
Jackson Martinez has been the most high profile failure in recent years, costing €35m from Porto in 2015. He struggled to fit into Atleti’s very specific system, and that might well be the key factor in the striking failures in recent times.
Jackson was at odds with Atleti's tough training regime and the defensive style of football that Atleti strikers under Simeone have to play (see the struggles of Kevin Gameiro and Luciano Vietto as well) and the signs were ominous from the beginning.
Simeone’s arrival has coincided with success on the basis of some particular conditions and demands - not everyone can meet those.
Strikers under Simeone must not just be there to score goals, but also work for the team. They are an important first line of defense and must track back a lot.
While Atleti can flow spectacularly in the attack, there is no denying that maintaining a solid backline and keeping a clean sheet is their mantra. Simeone has been incredibly successful living by these means, and at times has shown there is no need for a star striker to the lead the line.
However, this style of play has been found out and with Atleti looking to step up to become one of the true giants of European football (new stadium, increased revenue and what have you) the shift to a more expansive style has been painful to watch with the team reverting to type in the big games.
Atleti in their previous state under managers before Simeone was very much seen as an attacking 4-4-2 team, with little focus on defence and instead employing a style heavily dependent on wing play.
Wingers were vital parts of the system, but so were also two strikers leading the line - take Diego Forlan’s partnership with Sergio Aguero at one point. Then it was very much a gung-ho approach to football, and while they were entertaining and unpredictable, they didn’t win anything.
Simeone changed that by sacrificing style for efficiency. Strikers have almost been brought into the club on the basis of being obliged to have one, as opposed to being a necessity.
The pressure on the club to replace Falcao and then Costa were significant, with Jackson, not the only problem player. Mario Mandzukic also started well but soon faded out. His problems seemed to stem from issues off the field as his attitude did not fit in with the one family spirit of the dressing-room.
Vietto and Gameiro have been the latest victims of Simeone's tactical rigidity, and while both remain at the club, their days seem numbered given the return of Costa.
Vietto was handed his debut in Argentina when at Racing Club by Simeone, but the player who was so electric with Villarreal has failed to spark in Madrid. Gamiero meanwhile hasn’t been afforded continuity in the team, and it shows that he’s still unsure of how his game works within the system.
Torres was brought back to the club not to lead the line, but for emotional reasons (similar to Wayne Rooney at Everton). His return was based on sentiment, and while a nice gesture, it hasn’t really worked out and Torres is well and truly washed up. Even his usage as a back-up is a waste of squad space.
As Atleti looks to develop and become more attacking, the need for that complete striker has become greater - hence the desperation to bring Costa back to the club.
Costa can be exactly that, and if he doesn’t recapture his old form then the golden age of the striker at Atleti could be well and truly over.
Simeone has created great things at Atleti and done what no other coach could’ve done there. It can’t be ignored however that the charm of Atleti’s love affair with imposing centre-forwards has been sacrificed along the line.