Over the next few weeks and months, you will see a lot of statistics related articles on here, catering to that part of our readership that loves the utilisation of numbers and data in the beautiful game. Marvyn Paul looks at Atletico Madrid’s big signing, Mario Mandzukic comparing him to the striker sold by the La Liga champions, Diego Costa.
Much has been made of the losses of key Atlético Madrid personnel during the ongoing transfer window. Los Colchoneros have wasted little time in replacing their top scorer Diego Costa, who made a switch to Chelsea early in the transfer window. It was his responsibility to provide the decisive difference up front, exceeding all pre-season expectations by dealing out damage to the tune of 27 goals in 35 league matches, and an astonishing 8 goals in 9 against Europe’s finest in the Champions’ League. His physical style of play bullied defenders into mistakes, and the Spanish national side’s newest recruit converted half-chances into goals on numerous occasions thanks to his acrobatic finishing ability.
Mario Mandzukic, the €22 million man chosen to lead the Spanish Champions’ attack for the upcoming season, is a familiar face. He scored twice for Croatia at the World Cup before their group stage exit, and featured as a pivotal squad member for reigning German Champions Bayern Munich during their trophy-laden recent years. Atletico have signed a player who can provide additional winner’s pedigree to a team that is, against all odds, becoming accustomed to success. Losing key players to billionaire-backed European sides is always likely to be detrimental to progression, regardless of a manager’s ability to improve players within the team. However, Diego Simeone’s aptitude in replacing these signings with younger and lower profile players willing to adapt to his system has reaped rewards on and off the field. The atmosphere around the team, and as a result fan community has not been better in years. In the signing of Mandzukic, a talented player in his prime, this current period of success seems to have made Madrid’s ‘other’ team a viable destination for players with ambition. Antoine Griezmann’s move to the capital adds further momentum to this suggestion, and fans can rightly look forward to el Atleti continuing their upward trajectory.
A player fitting the Simeone blueprint like a glove, Mandzukic brought a high-energy pressing style to Bayern’s front line under Guardiola, often entering the fold in the second half and using his renowned energetic presence to capitalise on mistakes as the opposition defence was beginning to tire. His astute heading ability combined with pace and plenty of positional awareness can bring goals by the dozen through early crossing, a type of chance creation we have seen Koke and Juanfran specialise in over the last 12 months. Though the Croatian had plenty more to offer the German champions over the coming season and possibly beyond, his departure from Bayern was mainly in the hope of securing a starting role within a top side. The issue at his former side was that game time was proving scarce under Guardiola’s ever-evolving tactical system, and due to the frequent use of a ‘false 9’, he often found himself on the bench. Mandzukic’s role is the side was further marginalised by the signing of Robert Lewandowski, and a move away appeared the best possible outcome.
To see how Mandzukic will fit into this system, we must first look at what Atletico will miss due to Diego Costa’s departure, and compare his contributions with those of the the Croatian. Due to the differences in minutes accrued and the number of starts to substitute appearances, the statistics are listed per 90 minutes in an attempt to provide a more complete picture.
While both players have almost the same scoring rate per minute, Mario Mandzukic showed a much greater aerial prowess, scoring on average one headed goal every three games. There is more on the aerial ability within the side later on. Long shots are not a strength for either of these players, but the role of the striker in Simeone’s system rarely involves testing the goalkeeper from range. While shot accuracy remains an important factor, conversions are where the value in this lies and one should not read too much into this statistic.
Modern forwards are expected to contribute much more to a match than just scoring goals. The requirement of the tactics employed by both Guardiola and Simeone require defensive commitments from the centre-forward, closing down defenders before they have a chance to play the ball out to more creative players. Costa’s marginally better passing rate and number of total passes per game surprisingly yield half the amount of assists per 90 compared to Mandzukic. The potential for skewed results in this category are high because of two sets of factors depended on the scorer and the passer.
The system employed by Diego Simeone is a hybrid of styles typical of high-energy mid-table English teams like David Moyes’ Everton, and pressing counter-attacking sides like Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool who rely on a more polished technical playing style with the ball on the ground for the majority of the time. This fervent pressing playing style has coined a term in Spain used beyond football vocabulary, un cholismo, a way of describing an attitude that consists of nothing less than 100% dedication. This workmanlike side is build on a bedrock of defensive solidarity, with the full-backs patrolling the entirety of their respective flanks all game, staying true to their defensive duties and stretching play, while boosting the numbers in attack. The midfield line-up presents us with a curious layout of four high-energy midfielders with a narrow positioning, essentially making a bank of 4 CMs. The two nearest the middle fulfil primarily defensive duties, while the wide men are given more license to dribble and express themselves creatively in and around the final third. In addition to scoring the bulk of Atletico’s goals, the forwards are tasked with being the first line of defence, closing down defenders deep in their own half and preventing attacks from being started.
The high-energy requirements of a Simeone centre-forward will suit Mandzukic’s style perfectly. The slight differences in interceptions and fouls committed shows that the two players could conceivably be deployed with similar defensive demands. Where Mandzukic comes into his own is in his aerial presence. The vastly superior per-90 statistics displayed by the Croatia international in number and percentage of successful headed duels indicate that Alteti do have a Plan B, and a capability to play long balls forward.
While preferring to score with passes to feet and space, Atletico rely on set-pieces for most of the their headed goals, and Raul Garcia was the most potent threat from these positions. While he scored headers in a few high-profile matches last term, the reality was that Diego Godin was not as much a success in the opposition penalty area as these games suggested. The low amount of headed goals from open play can be seen as a concern, especially with the crossing potential within the team last term with Koke, Juanfran and Cristian Rodriguez all capable of picking out a man in the box.
New signing Mandzukic will be able to slot right in to Diego Costa’s old position up front, but the signing of Antoine Griezmann provides Simeone with an array of tactical options to maximise the former Bayern man’s ability. Cholo can now keep the same high-tempo pressing game and mentality that brought the team so much success, while adapting the personnel and formations to tailor his tactical approach depending on the opposition. As seen by his quick diagonal movement in the pre-season battering of Wolfsburg, the Frenchman is capable of carving open space and playing off the centre-forward, a situation that Mandzukic will thrive in. In addition to the former Real Sociedad man, the options of technical and fleet-footed personnel like Arda, Rodriguez, Koke and new boy Angel Correa enables direct passing to the target man from deep, enabling Mandzukic to hold up play and feed the aforementioned players into space in the channels.
Though Atletico Madrid have lost some key figures who were responsible for the club’s rise to the upper reaches of European football, they have been replaced with solid players who fit into their energetic and collective, team-centric playing style. This team ethic has been the platform for Simeone’s success during his Atletico tenure, and he is sticking to his principles in his transfer dealings. Though building the masterclass of last season’s performances will be a monumental task, fans of El Atleti should remain optimistic. The team has improved in parts, and new boys Oblak and Ansaldi have arrived from less competitive leagues to replace the outgoing Thibaut Courtois and Filipe Luis respectively. While bedding-in time is to be expected, the focus on the collective within this squad leads me to believe that these signings are relatively sheltered from the pressure that would come from replacing big-name players at other side. Mandzukic has found the club that will bring out the best in him, and with regular playing time I can see him match, if not exceed Costa’s numbers from what was really his first season as a genuinely feared opponent. So Mario, the stage is yours. Do what you’re capable of and your name will be bellowed around the Estadio Vicente Calderon for years to come.
Written by Marvyn Paul
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