Atletico Madrid have been the hipsters’ darlings over the last couple of seasons, with their aggressive style of play, and determination to succeed winning them trophies and plaudits. But obligatory sales and the financial glass ceiling of La Liga have seen them hit a roadblock. Is this as far as Simeone can take them?
Frail title defences, botched signings and abject displays are rarely tolerated in La Liga. Loyalty, in a league of trigger-twitching presidents and cat-calling ‘fans’, is a trait seldom seen. However, while Carlo Ancelotti paid the price for perceived failure and only a treble spared Luis Enrique a boardroom backstabbing, Diego Simeone remains immune to such ignominy despite a season of proportional disappointment. A new five-year contract; a by-product of his unmatched success at the Vicente Calderon. Past glories, it seems, are not so quickly forgotten on the south side of the capital.
However, recent history is littered with cautionary tales of inspiring underdogs, their remarkable over-achievement proving impossible to maintain. See Montpellier, Dortmund; their assets stripped by the historic bourgeois and oil-rich playthings. Progression, inevitably, stalls, sometimes stops completely. It’s a trend Atletico may be about to face. After two summers of relentless upheaval, has Diego Simeone’s cycle of success come to an end? Or can he rejuvenate, rebuild Atletico, and continue their evolution into a domestic force?
Understatement or under-performance?
After four years of snowballing triumph, 2014/15 induced a forgotten yet familiar feeling on the banks of the Manzanares. One not felt since Simeone’s arrival. Disappointment; an attribute synonymous with the Atleti of old. But, with no major trophies for the first time since 2010/11, last season represented something of a backwards step after years of steady progression. And it could have been so much worse. Winless in their final four league games, Atletico merely sneaked through the threshold of Champions League qualification, one point ahead of Valencia, two from Sevilla. Third place, in light of La Liga’s hegemonic duopoly, is reluctantly accepted. Fifth; less so.
However, even in the campaign’s infancy, ‘the best of the rest’ appeared Atletico’s aim. With Barcelona putting the finishing flourish on the greatest strike-force of the modern era, Real splurging eight-figure sums on the next fresh-faced Galactico, Simeone publicly accepted that the glass ceiling had been restored.
“One thing is clear: we cannot compete with Real and Barcelona. Our rivals are Sevilla, Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, and the target is third place.”
A wistful acceptance that their title win was not the beginning of domestic domination, but a simple miracle, albeit one earned as much through perspiration as inspiration. However, both on and off the pitch, the Argentine must be held somewhat accountable for the poorest season since his arrival.
For Atletico, hands tied by debt, the frequent selling of star players is simply unavoidable. Since 2014, Diego Costa, Felipe Luis, Thibaut Courtois, Arda Turan, Mario Suarez and Miranda, all principal protagonists of the Golden Generation, have bid Adios to Atleti. Though, refreshingly aware of their place in the bigger picture, Atletico have long embraced this buy low, sell high mind-set, replacing proven quality with untapped potential. Sergio Asenjo, David De Gea, Thibaut Courtois, Jan Oblak. Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa.
However, while Simeone seized the sporting greatness his various predecessors failed to grasp, the work away from the touchline remains his biggest detraction. Of his signings since 2013, only Antoine Griezmann, potentially Jose Gimenez and Jan Oblak, have performed to the expected, necessary, standard. For the most part, Simeone’s signings read like a ‘who’s who’ of forgotten talent and wasted funds. Last summer, Mario Mandzukic, Alessio Cerci and Raul Jimenez arrived amid anticipation, though were ushered quietly, and quickly, towards the exit. Altogether, in the last two seasons, Leo Baptistao, Toby Alderweireld, Joshua Guilavogui, Guilherme Siqueira, Angel Correa, Christian Ansaldi, Jesus Gamez, Cani, plus now-departed trio, arrived for a combined fee of around 90 million euros. Out of position, out of form or out on loan, each struggled to make their mark with a dismal average of 12 league appearances between them.
Further inspection casts severe doubt on Simeone’s ability to recreate Atletico’s class of ’14, built around rejuvenated cast-offs and reinvented has-beens. As goes the timeworn adage; ‘it is easy to achieve success; it is difficult to maintain it’. While the former will rightly be refuted, the Argentine has yet to definitively prove that he can rebuild a squad stripped of its most resourceful assets. That, after all, is what separates winners from legends, good managers from great.
Another summer, another hope
This summer’s arrivals, though positive on paper, arrive under increased scrutiny. Jackson Martinez, second only to Radamel Falcao in the record-signing stakes, must succeed where Mandzukic failed. Though why Simeone identified the sluggish Croatian as a capable deputy for the talismanic Costa remains a mystery. Martinez, then, must hit the ground running. Quite literally.
Meanwhile, the sale of Toby Alderweireld, and concurrent signing of Stefan Savic, hints at madness over masterstroke. Simeone simply cannot afford another campaign ruined by erroneous recruitment. His job may be safe, but his team certainly aren’t.
However, the arrivals of Luciano Vietto and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco hint at an overhaul. Simeone appears to be drawing up new blueprints, dotting the i’s on a revamped plan of action. Too often last season, Atletico suffered from a dearth of creativity. They relied heavily upon set-pieces (accounting for 35 of just 67 domestic strikes), compensating for a static, creaking midfield, ponderous wing-play and an all-too-predictable preference for desire over dexterity.
Furthermore, Atletico posted the worst scoring record in the top five last season, failing to net in eight league games. Espanyol, Granada, even Rayo Vallecano, complete with the league’s joint worst defence, frustrated the fallen champions. Meanwhile, their abject European exit at Real’s ivory-gloved hand epitomised their startling digression with lethargic losses to Barcelona and Valencia casting further doubts on the longevity of Simeone’s high-pressing, uber-aggressive game-plan. A plan B is simply essential. And, on initial inspection, Simeone appears to have heeded the call.
Vietto, Carrasco and Martinez, plus the returning Oliver Torres and finally-fit Angel Correa, offer more incisive, inherently quicker alternatives to a side beset by rigidity. Simeone, to his credit, appears to have abandoned his penchant for experience over exuberance, graft over guile. Improved performances, if not results, should surely follow.
Furthermore, Simeone’s ability to nurture potential into talent into top-level proficiency remains almost unrivalled. After all, the core of Atleti’s Golden Generation were present pre-revolution, with the title-winning backline of Juanfran, Godin, Miranda and Felipe Luis starting Gregorio Manzano’s final game in charge, a home defeat to third-tier Albacete in the Copa Del Rey. How times have changed. Simeone, through an incessant belief in team spirit, transformed a squad of limited individuals into an uncompromising, interlocking unit. Raul Garcia; from an inconsistent bench-warmer to a tenacious, goalscoring enforcer. Juanfran; a limited winger into one of the league’s most reliable full-backs. Gabi; an ageing veteran into Simeone’s on-field general. Even Diego Costa, a perennial loanee, was converted into a match-winning battering ram under his manager’s tutelage.
And, with a changing of the guard ongoing, Atletico 2.0 being turned from concept into reality, Simeone has a chance to reinvent a team in his own snarling visage. Griezmann, a flying winger on arrival, has already undergone a rather inspired makeover, scoring 22 league goals from a central role. Overall, the current squad’s average age of 25 points at a more balanced selection, the youthful promise of Saul and Gimenez blended with battle-scared savvy of Gabi and Godin. Expect to see a more creative, high-tempo Atletico next season. And, with time on their side, the season after that. And so on.
Atletico’s new-look, youth-led side lacks the experience, the simple quality, to challenge Spain’s reinforced top two this season. But Simeone’s ability to improve players beyond recognition, elevating them onto higher planes of excellence, ensures Atleti can never be overlooked or underrated. Good players today may be great tomorrow. And, if Simeone’s signings finally fit, if Martinez, Vietto and co adapt seamlessly, there’s no reason why Atletico can’t chip away at the glass ceiling until the status quo shatters around them once again.
And, with Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda purchasing a 20% stake in the previously debt-ridden Los Colchoneros, Simeone will be present for a new era of financial independence, freeing Atletico from the pockets of their commercially-viable rivals. Atletico, for the first time, could enjoy the luxury of retaining their prized possessions, fortifying a dynasty rather than rebuilding it every year. This is not a team in terminal decline; no Montpellier or Dortmund. With foreign investment flooding the coffers, a manager proficient in the fine art of overachievement, 2015/16 could see the birth of a new Atletico.
Written by Danny Owens