clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Presenting Atlético Madrid’s All-Decade Team

The best XI from Atlético’s longest run of sustained success in a generation.

Spoiler alert: these guys feature in this piece.
Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images

Without further ado...

Goalkeeper: Jan Oblak

Thibaut Courtois stood between the posts for Europa League winners, Copa del Rey winners and league title winners. But Oblak’s abilities and importance to Atlético Madrid in recent seasons cannot be understated — he is arguably the world’s best goalkeeper, going from strength to strength as the classic back four weakened and a new defense formed in front of him.

Oblak barely played in his first half-season in Spain, but an injury to Miguel Ángel Moyà in the Champions League last 16 handed the Slovene his chance. He went on to star in the second leg penalty shootout against Bayer Leverkusen and conceded just once in the ensuing quarterfinal against Madrid. In 2015/16, he allowed only 18 goals as Atlético stayed in the title race until the penultimate weekend.

Europa League and Super Cup success followed in 2018, and Oblak has won the Zamora Trophy for fewest league goals conceded four years running. The 26-year-old is on track to win it again next spring.

Right back: Juanfran

Juanfran established himself as a key player at Osasuna before Atlético bought him in January 2011. Diego Simeone converted him into a full-time right back during the 2011/12 season, and he went on to become one of Europe’s best at the position. He even went to the 2014 World Cup, where he set up a David Villa goal in one of his 22 national team appearances.

At his peak, Juanfran was an absolutely dogged, rarely-beaten defender who clocked over 12,000 minutes between 2013 and 2016. And though he wasn’t an athletic freak, his agility allowed him to keep up with most anyone, while his control and intelligence allowed him to find space to attack. Injuries hampered his final three seasons in Madrid, but his technical ability and understanding with Koke never left him. Simeone continued to count on the veteran — eschewing other options the club acquired — until his departure for São Paulo last summer. In total, he rang up 355 appearances as a Rojiblanco, narrowly missing out on the club’s top 10.

Olympique de Marseille v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

Sadly, one of Juanfran’s defining moments remains his shootout miss in the 2016 Champions League final — a sharp right-footed effort that would have squeaked past Keylor Navas if not for the goalpost. But following the loss, Juanfran walked over in tears to the supporters who had made their way to Milan and sought their forgiveness. That summer, he penned a letter to all fans, promising that Gabi would lift another European trophy before their time was up. And so he did, in Lyon, two years later.

Center back: Diego Godín

Yeah. He had to be here.

Godín is one of the most important and transformative figures in Atlético Madrid’s 116-year history. Nicknamed “the pharaoh,” he emerged quickly as the defensive leader upon Simeone’s arrival, ushering in a new age for a team previously recognized for its attacking and...not so much its defending.

Godín was the perfect player to reside at the heart of Cholo’s back four. The Uruguayan’s peerless positioning, aerial ability and understanding of the game saw him become an elite central defender — arguably Europe’s best between 2013 and 2016.

Atlético’s 2013/14 campaign probably is Godín’s career pinnacle. He scored eight goals that season, including the title-clinching goal seen above and a header in Lisbon which should have been enough to secure a European Cup.

Godín made 389 appearances over his nine seasons in Madrid, and he’s now under Antonio Conte’s orders at Inter Milan.

Center back: João Miranda

Godín’s partner-in-crime has a trophy-winning goal to his name, too. But Miranda, now 35 and playing for Jiangsu Suning, was an ideal defender to complement his fellow South American.

Miranda, who arrived on a free transfer from São Paulo in 2011, took more positional risks than Godín — gambles which did not pay off during his below-average final season in Madrid. But the two averaged 15.4 clearances per 90 minutes during the 2012/13 league season and better than 10 per 90 minutes in the two ensuing Champions League campaigns. Simeone’s Atlético would not have taken flight without this duo.

Left back: Filipe Luís

Ever the character, Filipe was about as smooth an attacking full back as the decade produced. Where Juanfran gained more recognition for his defensive work, Filipe won plaudits for his silky, flowery attacking style. The Brazilian’s wicked passing and odd eye for goal made him an integral part of this team over two separate stints — and under Simeone he became a lockdown defender himself.

Though his hotheadedness occasionally got the better of him — such as when he jammed his boot through Lionel Messi’s kneecap — and he nearly left the club twice during the decade, Filipe was dedicated to the cause and was a marauding terror at his best. He may still be at the club had he not suffered a broken leg in March 2018 and lost consistency thereafter.

However, since his departure a few short months ago, Filipe has experienced continental success with Flamengo.

Central midfielder: Gabi

El Capitán.

Simeone did not believe initially that Gabi was cut out for his Atlético, but the academy graduate soon put any such concerns to bed upon his return from Zaragoza. Cholo gave him the armband, and the rest is history. He went on to lift half a dozen trophies as captain, including the Europa League in his final game — in which he scored his final goal and put in what could have been a man-of-the-match display.

The Madrid native made 352 appearances during his second stint at the club and developed into a perennially-underrated midfielder — often breaking up play with a forceful tackle or slick interception, and later in his career distributing calmly and effectively in possession. It is criminal that he never received a national team call-up.

Central midfielder: Tiago

The other half of the title-winning engine room. Tiago Mendes could do just about anything when his body allowed him. He was an aggressive yet effective tackler situated in front of the defense. He was excellent in the air. He was one of the team’s most accurate passers and adjusted with ease to Simeone’s more possession-optional style.

Unfortunately, Tiago struggled to stay healthy during his seven-and-a-half year tenure in the Spanish capital. The Portuguese made 30-plus league appearances just twice, and leg and knee injuries cost him most of 2015/16 and 2016/17 — his final two seasons with the club.

Right midfielder: Koke

Atlético’s current captain began the decade as one midfielder and ended it as another.

Koke once was anticipated to be Xavi’s successor in the national team. For a while, he seemed on his way to meeting that lofty expectation (put forth, of course, by Xavi). The born-and-bred Rojiblanco’s lethal through balls and set piece deliveries saw him ring up 37 assists over a three-season span between 2013 and 2016.

But Koke didn’t become Xavi. He didn’t even become a central midfielder. Recent seasons have seen Simeone try him out in the middle of the park, but in the end he has always been shifted back out to a wing. His influence over games has decreased despite a healthy boost in his touches. Including this season, he has notched just 17 assists since the start of 2016/17. Four of Koke’s 10 assists in 2014/15 came via free kick — he’s managed only three such assists since.

Yet, despite justifiable criticism centered on his performances in big games, Koke’s versatility is still a serious asset. His running, tackling and simple passing break up spells of possession and key counterattacks the other way. He’ll still contribute the odd goal or assist. He loves the club and could break its appearances record in a couple years. Kokinho retains plenty of value because of these factors, and they’re valid explanations as to why he plays 90 minutes or more every week.

Left midfielder: Saúl Ñíguez

Here’s another academy graduate with a fierce devotion to the club — which is really nice, because his coach often plays him out of position, sometimes for the hell of it.

Tiago broke his leg during a match against Espanyol in November 2015, the unfortunate incident which precipitated Saúl’s entry into Simeone’s plans. Six months later, he started a Champions League final, so rapid was his growth once given the opportunity.

Saúl’s class and completeness as a player was and is evident, whether he’s in central midfield, in wide midfield or at left back. He is a durable box-to-box threat, a relentless ball-winner with more than an eye — let’s call it a loving gaze — for goal. His highlight reel has a few bangers on it.

Forward: Antoine Griezmann

Griezmann’s legacy is complicated. Only four players in club history scored more than his 133 goals between 2014 and 2019, and he carried Atlético to victory with a brace in the 2018 Europa League final. He was a Ballon d’Or contender during an incredible 2016, when he became Simeone’s Messi and often directed the team’s entire attack. He was available most every week and he boasted an impressive work rate for a forward. At his best, he was beyond essential.

Atletico Madrid v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg

But Griezmann wasn’t always at his best. He was prone to cockiness, even arrogance. He was often distracted by his celebrity. He had to (reluctantly) deny accusations of racism. His lengthy flirtations with Manchester United and Barcelona angered fans — and often corresponded with dips in form. There was more than a little relief in some circles when the Frenchman confirmed in May he would leave the club, perhaps a year too late.

Still, Griezmann’s influence and brilliance for much of his stay cannot be denied, and not even a move to a direct rival can keep him out of the All-Decade Team.

Forward: Radamel Falcao

El Tigre only played 21 months in Madrid, but he started the revolution.

While Falcao’s two seasons brought 70 goals and two trophies, he also brought something more existential — the cosmic concept of excitement. Falcao’s exploits against the backdrop of the league’s top defense inspired hope that a new dawn was coming for this topsy-turvy club and its cynical yet passionate supporters.

Atletico Madrid v Athletic Bilbao - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The so-called “King of the Europa League” did the thing in his first season, scoring 12 times in the competition, including a brace in Bucharest against Athletic Club. The next season, he had his five-goal game and an assist in the historic Copa del Rey final win — Atlético’s first victory over Real Madrid in the 21st century.

Falcao made an expensive move to Monaco in 2013 and has experienced peaks and valleys since, but his two explosive seasons in Madrid kicked off this period of steadiness and stability. For that, he makes the cut.

Bench: José Giménez, Raúl García, Diego Forlán

  • Had to make a few tough calls here. Diego Costa is a big part of Atlético’s success this decade — his goals plus his ferocious mentality helped win a Copa del Rey and a league crown in consecutive years. Simeone remains extremely loyal to him. But save for a few bright flickers, Costa’s second stint with the club has largely been a disaster, and that’s just hard to overlook. His was the most difficult exclusion, by far.

Fernando Torres had his moments and was especially critical during the back half of the 2015/16 season, but his best days were clearly behind him when he rejoined the club. Arda Turan was an important piece on Simeone’s first teams, too, but his wavering effort level and acrimonious exit combined to leave him off this side.

  • José Giménez is Atlético’s longest-tenured center back, and he possesses a rare skill set — athleticism, power, speed, aggression and charisma — that would make him among the world’s best if he could just stay healthy.
  • What can be said about Raúl García? The converted attacking midfielder often made his most pronounced impact off the bench and gleefully stared down or engaged physically with any opponent who dared cross him. That attitude and fight epitomized Atlético’s identity and collective mentality. He became an icon during the 2013/14 season, when he scored 10 league goals — two from corners against Valencia and Villarreal, which kept Atlético in the title race — among 18 in all competitions. The current Athletic star then kicked off 2014/15 with a vital goal in the Supercopa.
  • Finally, Forlán — a clutch striker, playmaker, and hero.