The final team in our 2016-17 La Liga preview series season is... our own Atletico Madrid.
What are Atletico Madrid’s expectations this year?
It’s still difficult to answer this question. Atletico are clearly a step ahead of everyone not named Barcelona or Real Madrid. Diego Simeone’s regime has seen the Rojiblancos move from being one of several second-tier teams (alongside Valencia, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, and arguably Villarreal) to a clear league of their own and, arguably, on the same level as the duopoly on the field, even if Real and Barça still enjoy a massive leg-up financially.
That said, a realistic target is probably something like a Copa del Rey final appearance, staying in the La Liga title hunt till April or longer, and advancing deep into the Champions League. That last one should be held with an open hand though since a great deal of Champions League advancement depends on the sort of draw you get. If Atletico finishes north of 80 points (hopefully closer to 90 than 80) and can crack the semifinals of the Champions League, that would be an excellent campaign.
What kind of tactics should we expect?
This is the interesting thing for Atletico. In the early days of his regime, Diego Simeone set his teams up in a flat, narrow, compact 4-4-2. The name of the game was organization, solidity and counter-attacking. They would be impossible to score against, devastating on the counter and rely on stringing together lots of 1-0 victories on their way to glory.
For awhile, that worked. However, as teams have adjusted the way they play Atletico, Simeone has had to adapt. Now it’s not unusual to see Atletico set up in a 4-1-4-1, as they did several times in the Champions League last season or in some sort of 4-4-2 diamond shape with one central midfielder sitting behind the other, anchoring the team.
The one constant seems to be Simeone’s fondness for a number five in midfield—a kind of midfield sweeper who sits between the midfield and defensive lines. This player shields the front four and also initiates many of Atletico’s attacks by either winning the ball himself or being the first player to receive it after the defenders win the ball. That said, Simeone has played a number of different players in that role. Saul has worked there as a more forward-thinking, technical number five. Augusto has worked there in a more straightforward destroyer role. Gabi is the best way of splitting the difference between the two. Tiago may also be in the frame for this role as he returns from injury.
The bigger story, though, is likely the continued emergence of a more versatile, adaptable Simeone. I expect we’ll continue to see Atletico in a variety of attacking formations this season and with different players used in multiple roles.
Who are the most influential players?
New signings Kevin Gameiro and Nicolas Gaitan both figure to be vital for Atletico. One of the biggest problems plaguing last season’s squad was the lack of cover for Antoine Griezmann. The French attacker is Atletico’s best player on the wing and up top, so every match meant picking which area you wanted to sacrifice. If the team was setting up in a 4-4-2, Griezmann probably would play up top and benefit from playing alongside a more conventional center forward. If the team was in a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3, Griezmann would end up on the wing. With the addition of Gameiro, an elite striker, and Gaitan, an elite winger, one suspects that the attack should be more rounded out this season.
Beyond these two signings and Griezmann, it’s hard to identify a single player who is absolutely irreplaceable. Simeone’s squad is remarkably deep. Koke, Saul and Gabi are all versatile midfielders who can play just about anywhere across the midfield four. Gabi, Saul and Augusto are adept in the holding role, as too is the returning Tiago. Yannick Carrasco, Nicolas Gaitan, Koke, and Saul can all play in the wide roles, as can Griezmann. Up top the team can now call on Griezmann, Gameiro, and returning veteran Fernando Torres.
Basically, this is the deepest team Atletico have ever had in the Simeone era and if a player is “irreplaceable,” it’s only because of their individual quality, not because Atletico lack a like-for-like replacement to cover for them. Given Atletico’s financial limitations relative to Real Madrid and Barcelona, it’s rather remarkable that they have managed to create the deepest team in this year’s La Liga, but I think they have.
What have they done during the transfer window?
Atletico didn’t need more young talent this window. They already have it in spades—Saul, Carrasco, Lucas Hernandez, Jose Gimenez and Thomas Partey have already established themselves. There’s a bevy of similar youngsters waiting in the wings. What Atletico needed to do above all was add depth. The Torres-Griezmann pairing was inconsistent at times and put an enormous burden on Griezmann. The additions of Gameiro and Gaitan solves that problem.
Atletico also did another canny bit of business, however, in loaning out Luciano Vietto and Matias Kranevitter. The pair of promising Argentines have struggled during their time at the Vicente Calderon but both are young enough that there is reason to think both can come good if given enough time. Their loans to Sevilla will offer them regular playing time at a high level working under a manager even crazier than Simeone—former Chile national team manager Jorge Sampaoli. If the two players can do well this season at Sevilla, Atletico can either keep them or sell them for much more than they would’ve gotten for either this summer.
One Bold Prediction
Atletico’s best shot at a trophy this season is La Liga. Champions League campaigns are grueling and the abbreviated nature of the competition means that luck has a disproportionate impact on one’s chances. I won’t be surprised if Atletico get to a third European final in four years and I certainly won’t be surprised if they pull a Bayern and win the European Cup after failing in the final twice in the previous three campaigns. That said, you cannot count on it.
La Liga, on the other hand, is set up beautifully for Simeone’s men. Barcelona are getting older and Atletico seem to have mastered the art of defending the MSN. Madrid should be stronger in the league under Zidane, but a lot will hang with them on the individual genius of a few key players. Atletico have the deepest squad top-to-bottom in Spain and the most adaptable. Whether that will make up for the fact that they don’t a guy who can conceivably score 40+ goals in the league is an open question, of course. But if Madrid struggle, the door is wide open for the Atleti to claim their second La Liga crown in four seasons.