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Atlético Madrid losing battles, but positioning themselves to win the war

Los rojiblancos have their biggest and best talent returning for another year.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Real Madrid CF - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid are in the business of disruption. They have to be. It is a constant battle to keep up with Real Madrid and Barcelona, so they have to continuously take chances, poke their nose in where it’s not wanted and try to build something that people want to take part in. It doesn’t always work, but once the wins outweigh the losses - regardless of how embarrassing they might be - the right path is being taken.

Antoine Griezmann, Saúl Ñíguez, Jan Oblak and Koke have all signed new contracts at the club that heaved their release clauses up to coincide with GDPs of some small nations. They ensure that Atlético’s future is safe-guarded to some extent. But with Vitolo in and a deal looking increasingly likely for Diego Costa, Atlético are building something special despite all the bad press surrounding the registration ban, the stadium change and the crest change. Atleti are trying to reassure fans that there’s life in this team yet.

Leicester City v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

A decisive moment

In every war, there is a turning point. There are decisive moments when one looks back and can say with some clarity that this is when it all changed.

For Atlético, it came at a cost, but it emboldened them and made many of their star players realise just how special a moment they were living under Diego Simeone’s instruction. In a lethargic year that began with Simeone’s contract reduction and ended with fear that Griezmann would bolt to England, Atlético never truly challenged for honours domestically and again fell short against Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals.

The moment Atletico realised it was not the end of this team’s cycle, however, came against their city rivals in the second leg of their semifinal. Their limp defeat at the Santiago Bernabéu had the epitaph-writers on standby, but they’d have to wait; close to kicking the bucket but no cigar.

It’s so often the hope that kills you, but for his Atlético side, they sat back and got a jolt of that very hope that can become disillusionment. One more year, they seemed to collectively think. The club may be moving north, into Madridista territory, but Atleti are moving in the right direction with a new sense of hope and purpose.

Club Atletico de Madrid Training - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Transfer ban

The transfer ban and the burden it carries remain a point of contention in Atlético-land. Who was at fault? What will the club do over the summer? Did the board plan for this eventuality? All these questions were asked, but never were sufficiently answered. But it scarcely matters that Atlético’s transfers are being played out in the press. What matters most is that they are (somehow) getting deals done. Atlético’s battle to remain relevant, like most everything else at the club, is not conventional.

In reality, the ban has turned into somewhat of a blessing. It meant that Griezmann stayed, which might have been the catalyst for Oblak and the rest to tie their futures to the club. Further, Griezmann’s not-so-covert hints about his ambition to win has caused Atlético to become far more aggressive in the transfer market, even while under a ban on registering players.

The first four months of the 2017/18 season will be uncomfortable, but the squad is very much the same as the one that comfortably placed third last year and made a Copa del Rey semifinal in addition to another in the Champions League. Meanwhile, Barcelona are struggling to strengthen and the teams behind the rojiblancos are in the earliest stages of change with new managers and new directions. Real Madrid are the standard-bearers at the moment, but by the time the league really kicks into gear, Atlético will have reinforcements at hand. They will also bring some of their loaned out players back and try to figure out a way to make sure they remain afloat until the ball drops on New Year’s Eve.

Vitolo is a done deal, which, as Atlético stated in the official announcement, brings with it a certain type of balance for Atletico with the ability to unbalance opponents. For all of the speed and danger that Yannick Carrasco offers, Vitolo brings a different, more carefully-considered and precise form of attack. Good in tight spaces, Vitolo should be able to free up his teammates in the box and create panic while never neglecting his defensive duties.

Diego Costa, if it happens, gives Atlético the number nine that they have lacked since he left. He’d also give Atlético, on paper, on of the most dynamic duos in Europe if (when?) he gets the chance to team up with Griezmann. The midfield is helped by Augusto’s return and the axis of ability that is Saúl and Koke. In defence, it is as you were with Lucas Hernández ready to take a step forward and Šime Vrsaljko ready to lock down his spot as first-choice right back. Atleti are getting younger in important positions without losing the mature vertebrae of the team.

The commotion may make headlines, but Atlético are stealthily building a squad that can compete on all fronts in the second half of the year, with options for Simeone to add more flexibility to his tactics.

Atlético Madrid have lost plenty of battles in recent months, but they’re in it for the long haul. The war is far from over.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Athletic Club - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images