As we move into the new club football season, Outside of the Boot will be publishing regular Tactical Previews of the sides from across Europe’s top seven leagues. This one focuses on Spanish Champions, Atletico Madrid. Juraj Vrdoljak takes a look at their basic formation, analyses their tactics, key player and their potential key young players of the 2014/15 season.
Atletico Madrid emerged as surprising winners of La Liga last season, after a long wait of 18 years. Diego Simeone’s squad have proven themselves by rising from being a “dark horse” to both La Liga Champions and Champions League finalists in the same season.
However, their triumph was followed by a series of issues that hinder teams who enjoy their share of deserved success but are still considered to be a “one-season wonder”. The likes of Diego Costa, Filipe Luis, Thibaut Curtois and David Villa, all of whom played major roles in Atletico’s achievement last season, have left the club this summer, and Simeone had a tough time ensuring that the squad harmony isn’t disrupted in any way, while at the same time trying to find suitable replacements for these top players. Did he succeed in doing so? Let’s find out.
Formation | How will they set-up?
Atletico have shown us in pre-season that they will stick to their rough variation of a stubborn 4-4-2 formation, with the main focus up front, where Mandžukić and Griezmann – their biggest signings of this summer – will bring new life and hopefully fully adapt to Simeone’s vision of the game. Mandžukić, who arrived from Bayern Munich in a €22 million deal, could fit in there perfectly. He has all the attributes required for bringing new life to the Rojiblancos attacking line. Alongside him will feature another new signing, Antoine Griezmann, formerly of Real Sociedad, who will serve as a support striker coming in from wide. The pair could work like a charm, since Mario is also very adept at taming crosses and knocking them down for either Griezmann and/or Raul Garcia coming in from behind.
As for the midfield, Koke will surely remain at his wide role, helping out with the quick transition (Arda Turan will jump in as soon as he is fit), while Gabi and Tiago will stick to their role in closing down the middle, leaving less space for opponents to come through and forcing them to the flanks, where they will get trapped in Atletico’s favourite aspect – trapping the opposite side in narrow space, then aggressively taking their ball away followed by a quick counter. But besides that, the Gabi & Tiago duo have one more important role to play in pulling the defence and attack together, making sure there is not too much free space in between them at any time.
At the back they’ve also lost two significant names from last season. Filipe Luis, their reliable man on the left has moved to Chelsea, following both Courtois and Costa to Stamford Bridge. Being in his peak years, Luis (29) is not getting any younger, and the deal that went to almost €20 million could be seen as a successful one for Atletico. However, his importance in Atletico’s stellar back line last season was inarguable. Luis was flawless in his defensive actions as well as being extremely effective up front, where he was great at both crossing and supporting attacks with his ability to overlap. Guilherme Siqueira, a new signing from Granada, will have a tough time filling Luis’ shoes, and with Simeone’s transfer policy ensuring that every position has two players, he will have to do his best to stay ahead of Cristian Ansaldi, who was brought in on loan to provide cover and healthy competition on the left flank.
The rest of the experienced back line suffered no changes, a relief to Simeone. Miranda and Godin remain their two boulders in the heart of their defense, as well as Juanfran on the right. One more addition to the defensive line is Jesus Gamez, who was most likely brought in to support Juanfran in case he gets exhausted playing in the high rhythm season which awaits Atletico yet again.
Thibaut Courtois being recalled by Chelsea was also a big blow for Atletico, since the young Belgian has developed into a top-class goalkeeper, a statement that was proved numerous times throughout the whole last season. However, Simeone brought in both Jan Oblak from Benfica and Miguel Angel Moya from Getafe, with the young Slovenian having an advantage between the posts. He had a great season at Benfica, helping them to their 33rd league title, and pushing them to the Europa League final where they lost to Sevilla on penalties. Oblak has a great deal of talent, and every Rojiblancos fan has a right to expect him to take over from Courtois.
Analysis | What can we expect from them tactically?
Change in their attacking style: Atletico had undergone considerable changes over the summer, but perhaps the biggest ones were made in the attacking area. From Villa and Costa they’ve switched to Mandžukić & Griezmann, which brings us to a more proactive attack, with significantly more options offered than it did with Villa and Costa. As I mentioned earlier, Mandžukić is a versatile striker who adds depth to the squad. A lot of words have been both written and spoken about his move from Bayern in order to decide whether Pep Guardiola has made a mistake in letting him go. As much as Atletico had their own specific touch with Villa and Costa, both being very strong in one-on-ones, that gave the last year’s Atletico a different dimension from one they have today. But that shouldn’t be taken as a negative thought. With Mandžukić and Griezmann, Rojiblancos have gained a lot – in sense of both tactics and pace. The former brings pace and high pressure as well as another player capable of netting a well-placed cross, alongside Raul Garcia. Griezmann, when coming in from behind, poses a great threat – something that will especially come to the fore when Mario drops the ball with his back facing the goal, after which there are numerous options to threaten the opposition goal. It’s yet to be seen how it will all play out on the pitch but the future of Atletico’s attacking play does not look bleak by any stretch of the imagination.
The “suffocation” style of defensive play: At the back, not much has changed in terms of style. The first game vs Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa showed us that Atletico are still very much keen on the same outstanding defensive play that served them so well last season. They do not tend to put high pressure with their defensive line, especially when it comes to playing against opponents who have more than one or two proven playmakers. The high pressure part is left to the offensive part of the team, which closes the opponent down immediately, so they must try and play from the flanks. When they do so, there are already a couple of players ready to close their wingers down and narrow the space on offer. The system worked flawlessly versus Real as well, and it will just depend on how aggressive Atletico players can get; the only part where they could have an issue. When Tiago and Gabi retreat, they build a fort where the opponent simply has to move the ball wide where the last line of defence closes them down.
Squad depth: The Atletico squad isn’t getting any younger, and while most of the team is moving towards their peak (or are already there), will this current squad be able to compete on multiple levels with the same success? The answer is… well, probably not. But, Simeone brought in some fresh faces to provide more options. In addition, promising youngsters including the likes of Angel Correa, Jan Oblak, Raul Jimenez, Leo Baptistao and Saul Niguez look ready to get involved in the first team’s long term plans. Atletico can look ahead with optimism.
Key Player | Who will be the stand-out player for the system?
Atletico’s current system is putting the team ahead of individuals, an ideology that brought them last year’s success. But, if I had to choose, I would say that the duo up front (Mandžukić & Griezmann) will be the most interesting part of the team this year. How they settle into the club is definitely going to be one of the more interesting sub-plots in Spain.
Talent Radar | Who will be the key young players this season?
Jan Oblak: A lot has already been said about this young Slovenian goalkeeper. He was a smart buy from Simeone, replacing one great young goalkeeper with another. Sure, Courtois has proven himself at the highest level already, but Oblak has the ability to shine even brighter. This spring he had shown us all what he can do with Benfica, and now he made a big step forward in his career. After Handanovič, Slovenia has given us another great goalkeeper that could make a big impact in the near future.
Koke: Yes, I know, Koke is already an integral part of the Atletico team, but this 22 year old attacking midfielder does not cease to amaze with his versatility and ability to switch positions up front with such ease. With his great sense of space and amazing passing play, Koke will surely be a engine that pumps fuel to the great Atletico attack this season as well.
Saul Niguez: The Elche born wonderkid, Saul Niguez is the player that has to take everything he can from the upcoming season. A 19 year-old defensive midfielder, he had a great last season out on loan at Rayo Vallecano, being one of their most consistent players throughout the year, and he is the natural replacement for 31 year old Gabi, who will have trouble coping with the exhausting season ahead for Atletico.
Written by Juraj Vrdoljak.
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