Atletico Madrid: Impending departures an opportunity for change
The Frenchman appears to be the highest profile departure of what promises to be a challenging summer for Los Colchoneros.
Defensive lynchpin, Diego Godin has already announced his decision to leave once La Liga ends this weekend. His fellow ever-present defenders; Filipe Luis and Juanfran are also expected to depart the Wanda Metropolitano come the end of the season.
Strong rumours are swirling about the future of star midfielder Rodri while Lucas Hernandez has already committed to joining Bayern Munich for £72m.
In a sense, this summer will mark the end of the first phase of the Diego Simeone era. The Argentine tactician has worked miracles since returning as manager in 2011.
The club was a basket case before he joined, with debts, low morale and off-field issues raging. Under El Cholo’s tutelage, Atletico has emerged as a genuine Spanish and European giant in the last 6 years.
Age has caught up with the stalwarts
Under Simeone, Atletico have come to epitomize the spirit of the team over individuals. Creating a team in his own image and likeness, his side has bruised many an over-inflated ego with their mix of hard work and graft mixed with skill and technique.
The likes of Godin, Diego Costa, former captain, Gabi, Juanfran and others formed the core of a side that has won 7 trophies in the last 7 years and reached the UEFA Champions League final twice.
Unfortunately, playing Simeone’s style for years takes a toll on the body. The core of that team has been weakened by time and injuries.
Long-serving captain Gabi started the movement to the exit last season alongside favourite son, Fernando Torres.
Godin (33), Juanfran (34) and Filipe Luis (33) are all leaving as a result of the club’s policy of not offering players over the age of 30 a contract longer than a season. While the team will lose a lot of experience with these exits, it has become necessary to reduce the average age of one of Europe’s older teams (average age of 26.5).
Too often this season, these players and the team have been beaten by quicker and more mobile opponents (the UCL 2nd leg horror show against Juventus springs to mind).
Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to get as many of these elder statesmen out and allow for the regeneration process to start in earnest.
Questions about the club’s transfer policy
On-field success under Simeone has been followed by an off-the-field bloom in finances. The move to the magnificent 67,829-capacity Wanda Metropolitano in 2017 has set the club up nicely for future success.
However, it is fair to say that in the last couple of seasons, the team has gotten it wrong in terms of transfers. £431.38m has been spent on new players in the last 4 seasons and it's fair to say, it has been spent badly.
25 senior players have been bought in this period and a significant number have been duds. Gelson Martins joined for £20.25m from Sporting CP at the beginning of the season. He has spent the second half of the season on loan at AS Monaco.
The club has gotten nothing close to value-for-money from winger Vitolo on whom £32.40m was spent in 2017.
Jackson Martinez arrived with much fanfare in 2015 from FC Porto for £33.39m but lasted only half a season before moving to China.
The less said about the likes of Kevin Gameiro (£27m), Nico Gaitan (£22m) and Nico Kalinic (£13.5m), the better.
Nothing illustrates the wastefulness of the last few years like the decision to repurchase Diego Costa for £59.40m from Chelsea - a decision that looks stupider with each passing day. The Spanish forward has been a disaster since he returned.
He has played just 44 games in the one-and-half seasons he has been back, scoring 9 goals in the process. Endless injuries and disciplinary issues forced the club to get former youth product Alvaro Morata on loan in January.
Of these 25 players that have arrived in the last 4 seasons, only 7 have played a part for the club this season. This is a damning statistic that needs to be addressed.
Sporting director, Andrea Berta has been part of the management team since 2013 and should shoulder the responsibility for these mishaps. Simeone can also not be exonerated as he is part of the decision-making apparatus on transfers.
The need for smart spending
Atletico Madrid cannot afford to make these mistakes again. La Liga rivals FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have already shown a willingness to fix their messes by spending big on new players.
The Mattress Makers, as the club are known, do not have the spending power of the El Clasico duo. The summer transfer window will be something akin to a last-chance saloon opportunity.
Get it right and the club could be back to competing for the league title very soon. Misfire again and the club could get cast off further adrift of the big two.
Simeone has typically preferred working with a small group of 16-20 players. Therefore, the club is not expected to bring in too many new faces.
If Rodri joins the already departed Hernandez and soon-to-depart Greizmann, the club could realistically have up to £240m to spend.
AS Monaco are expected to try and make the signing of Martins permanent while Luciano Vietto has already joined Sporting Lisbon for £6.75m.
The likes of Costa, Vitolo, Santiago Arias and Sime Vrsaljko may also leave if suitable bids arrive.
Top clubs are said to be sniffing around midfielders Saul Niguez and Thomas Partey. While selling this duo would bring in lots of money, it would be hugely detrimental to the team’s development.
As to who comes in, it seems FC Porto will once again be Atleti’s preferred buying ground (as Southampton is to Liverpool and Valencia is to Barcelona).
Hector Herrera (defensive midfield), Alex Telles (left back) and Felipe (centreback) are rumoured to be on their way to the club for a total of £47m (Herrera would be on a free transfer).
Names like Valencia’s Jose Gaya, Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City) and Lucas Alario (Bayer 04) are also in the news.
Regeneration and a change in style
Koke, Saul, Rodri (via Villarreal) are the only players left in the side that came through the club’s academy.
This is not good enough as a club of Atleti’s means will need to produce competent youngsters if they are to have a squad large/capable enough to win things.
Borja Garces, Victor Mollejo and Carlos Isaac are among the youngsters who have made a smattering of appearances this season. Garces has already scored his first senior goal for the club and could get lots more game time depending on the sales/buys in the summer.
This season, there were obvious changes in how the team played. The arrival of the likes of Thomas Lemar and Martins was supposed to herald the shift to a more attacking style of play.
Deploying his usual three-man midfield, the new wingers were expected to add the dynamism and pace that had been lacking on the wings for a while now.
The arrival of the £63m-rated French winger has not yielded the desired results as he has struggled to adjust to Simeone’s demands.
Looking for like-for-like replacements for the departing players would be an exercise in folly. Atleti would be better served if Simeone sticks to making these tactical tweaks to the team’s set-up and style.
Next season, more will be demanded of players like Angel Correa and Jose Gimenez given the departure of the older heads.
Goalscoring looks set to be the biggest issue as few players in world football could match Griezmann’s goal output under Simeone.
Apart from getting in a reliable goalscorer to complement Morata and Costa (if he stays), the responsibility for goals will need to be shared. This means wingers, and midfielders could be expected to deliver double figures in terms of goals.
Atletico may not win La Liga due to the size of their squad. However, they are more than capable of putting together a great run in the cup competitions, especially the UCL.
For this to happen, the stylistic changes are essential. This season's craziness in European football has shown that teams that play conservative football like Atletico and Juventus can be taken down by teams who prefer to play on the front foot.
Therefore, Los Colchoneros can no longer hide under the underdog label. They are now a full member of the big boys club and as such, must play like their peers by dictating matches and being ruthless in attack.
The 2019/2020 season promises to be crucial in determining Atletico Madrid's short-to-medium-term status as genuine European big boys. They will go into the season with the world unsure of what to expect from what will be a new-look team.
However, if managed properly, it could be the start of another round of great happenings for Spain’s 3rd biggest club.