Atletico Madrid preview: With Joao Felix adding silk to Diego Simeone's steely side, new-look Atleti launch title challenge
Atletico Madrid finished the last two league seasons above Real and the same objective data that draws all the attention towards Real and Barcelona, begs everyone to consider Atletico as strong contenders for gold.
Atletico Madrid were the last team to break Real and Barcelona's monopoly over the league.
Like all well-run clubs, they foresaw the mass exodus and prepared well in advance for their trip to the transfer market.
The change in personnel also points towards a plausible change in approach.
Atletico Madrid are tired of the narrative.
Every time a new LaLiga season rolls in, Barcelona and Real Madrid attract the lion's share of public attention. The moves of Spain's two biggest football clubs are tracked in fine detail and many stories are woven around which of them look likelier to dominate domestic and continental — it is never enough for either of them to just win the league — competitions. Sixteen of the last twenty league titles and eight of the last fourteen Champions Leagues have been shared by these two. Everyone else is cast aside as hopeful entrants to an exclusive club of two. This volume of success cannot be ignored or trivialized.
Atletico Madrid were the last team to break Real and Barcelona's monopoly over the league when they won the title in 2013-14. Since their monumental triumph, they have also played in two Champions League finals. They came within ninety seconds of winning the former and were only beaten in a penalty shoot-out in the latter — both times, painfully, by sworn rivals Real Madrid. Since the 2016 Champions League final, they have finished all three domestic seasons above either Real or Barcelona. And yet, they always play under the air of "But, can they?"
The summer began in a similar mode. Antoine Griezmann, who had been flirting with bigger clubs for so long, finally got his wish and moved to Barcelona; Manchester City snapped up Rodri; Bayern Munich signed Lucas Hernandez. Gelson Martins and Luciano Vietto went too, and so did their experienced backbone of Diego Godin, Juanfran and Filipe Luis.
Those transfers may have fetched north of 300 million pounds for Atletico, but for a club of their size to lose one or two such players would be difficult to cope with, never mind an entire lineup. Atleti, somehow, have emerged out of that summer looking stronger than ever. Like all well-run clubs, they foresaw the mass exodus and prepared well in advance for their trip to the transfer market. The board moved swiftly by first binding Diego Simeone to a new contract which keeps him at the club till 2022. His importance and achievements as a manager for Atletico Madrid barely need introduction or explanation. In his eight years at the club, Simeone had already overseen two squad cycles — one from his first three years, ending with the league title; the other over the last five years. It was time for a third.
When you add the names of Joao Felix, Mario Hermoso, Marcos Llorente, Kieran Trippier, Renan Lodi and Hector Herrera to a squad that already has Alvaro Morata, Diego Costa, Saul Niguez, Thomas Lemar, Koke and Jan Oblak amongst many others, you begin to feel the might of what Atletico are set out for.
The change in personnel also points towards a plausible change in approach. Much of Diego Simeone's playing and managerial career has revolved around the core philosophy of steel, or as he likes to call and point out — cojones. One of his great strengths as a player was the ability to look a more technically gifted opposition in the eye and tackle the daylights out of them.
With players like Felix, Morata, Trippier, and Llorente, he may be moving towards an element of silk too, without sacrificing his core principles. In the past, the emphasis on values like grit and courage over something a little more unstable like flair has held Atletico back against high-quality opponents. Simeone has the mentality of a boxer and probably realizes that good boxers never let an opponent off the mat. His team have been guilty of it a few times and he now has the chance to attempt a redressal.
They look primed too. Atletico won all six of their pre-season games in July and early August, including a 2-1 victory over Juventus and an eye-watering 7-3 defeat of Real Madrid. Admittedly, pre-season isn't the strongest barometer of strength, but it isn't a blank slate either. Across the last month and a half, Atletico have looked slick and cohesive — a difficult task when you consider their recent reconstruction. Most of their new signings were completed well in time to enable the coaches for a productive pre-season.
This Sunday, Atletico Madrid begin their campaign at home against Getafe CF, who confounded everyone in Spain by finishing fifth last season. The temptation, even if subconsciously, will be to look at them as a necessary distraction from the actual race. Atletico aren't too fond of their portrayal as disruptors, anymore. They finished the last two league seasons above Real Madrid and the same objective data that draws all the attention towards Real and Barcelona, begs everyone to consider Atletico as strong contenders for gold.
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