La Liga: Atletico Madrid's ideal forward line for next season
The lure of Atletico Madrid as a fertile space for top-class strikers has gained traction, and perhaps credibility over the years. The mind goes back to the likes of a young Fernando Torres skipping past defenders, Sergio Aguero's almost ghost-like movement, Diego Forlan's thunderous strikes, Radamel Falcao's ability to just glide into the box and find goals from everywhere, or the flair of Antoine Griezmann - Atleti have never been short of firepower in attack.
One of the key reasons that these strikers, especially now under Diego Simeone, stand out in such sharp relief is that the Argentine boss relies on the guile and individual skill of his strikers for his team's goals. His system is geared to provide them with space and options, but their quick decision-making in attack (on the counter on many occasions) is what makes them flourish as top marksmen.
This season, they face the prospect of going into the season without their top scorer every season since the 14/15 season when Antoine Griezmann arrived at the club. The man he replaced, Diego Costa, is their most likely source of goals, but his thigh muscles are seemingly held together with a fragile string.
Who's scoring the goals?
Let's dial it back - Antoine Griezmann arrived at Atletico with experience in La Liga with Real Sociedad where he netted 20 goals and notched up 5 assists coming in from the left-wing. He's shared the pitch with the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Raul Garcia, Kevin Gameiro, Fernando Torres, and Diego Costa, playing in various positions and still outscoring everyone at Atleti.
He did so largely playing on the flanks or as a support striker as well. It was not till 2017 that he took on the mantle of a centre-forward, though it seems like he's been playing there forever. He has many strengths, but probably his greatest strength that served him well under Simeone is his ability to make good decisions quickly on the break.
Fast forward to the personnel Simeone has at his disposal this season and it's apparent that Griezmann's heir apparent isn't Diego Costa or Alvaro Morata, but its the 19-year-old Joao Felix. The Portuguese import scored plenty with Benfica last season (20 goals, 11 assists) and was a big part of their attacking play, Simeone will try to create conditions within his system to try and replicate and maybe better that performance.
A similarity between Benfica and Atletico is that they always seem to have goals coming from multiple sources rather than just one. Benfica beats Atletico for the sheer volumes they score in the Portuguese league, but the numbers at Atletico are just as impressive.
In the last 6 seasons, Atleti have usually relied on one player to get over 20 goals, another to cross the 10 goal mark, and between 5 and 8 players getting more than 5 goals. It's usually the attackers getting these goals, and Atleti are no slouch on set pieces, so their defenders score their fair share as well.
How will they shape up?
One of the big reasons Atleti have a lot of different scorers is that they play a lot of their best football on counters, and though you plan to have 2-3 players always involved in quick breaks, you can't always predict who will score. Lets first look at Atleti's plan on the break.
More often than not, Atleti tend to turn possession over on the wings and attack from there. Their wingers, defensive midfielders and full-backs average between 2-3 tackles per game and look to release runners ahead of them. The two strikers bend their runs to find gaps in the backline while driving them back.
The opposite winger either drives inside to receive the ball in space created by the bombarding forwards or makes his own run on the far side for a quick switch. Meanwhile, the central midfielders and players down the same wing provide quick passing options or make runs so the player on the ball can advance.
Not all counter-attacks are successful, so when Atleti have more time on the ball, you would find the right and left attacking midfielders in more central positions, trying to link play with the strikers or cycling the ball out wide to the the full-backs who tend to join in the attack to make the pitch wider and expose the channels or receive the ball with a late run and cross it in.
The defensive midfielders are stationed closer to the midfield line providing an option for a safe pass and well-positioned to deal with any turnover in possession.
Who will lead the line?
Simeone is likely to start the season with a combination of Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa up front.
For some games where they may be required to spend more time on the ball and find space between lines, he may swap out one of the strikers for Saul, Felix or Vitolo so they can drop deeper and receive the ball under pressure up the field.
Expect Felix, Saul, and Koke to start most games while interchanging attacking positions, they will start the season with Simeone expecting each of them to add to the team's goal tally as well.
For a largely defensive side, Atleti have a lot of options in attack this season. Coping without Griezmann will be a difficult task, but Atleti seem to have it all under control.