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Cholo Simeone’s progressivism challenged in matchday one

Getafe were a difficult team to start the league season against. That said, Atlético’s coach can’t wait too long to build a more proactive side

Atletico Madrid v Getafe - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

João Félix. Marcos Llorente. Héctor Herrera. Ivan Šaponjić. Possibly Rodrigo Moreno.

Atlético Madrid have spent over €240 million (U.S. $260 million) this summer on a squad that already had Koke, Saúl and Álvaro Morata. The colchoneros now boast arguably the best attacking weapons Diego Simeone has ever had at his disposal.

However, the manager showed in the league-opening match versus Getafe that the back four remains central to his strategy. Atlético had 57 percent possession, but were outshot 6-5. With both teams down to 10 men, gameplans went out the window, and Atleti focused less and less on launching toward the final third and more and more on snuffing out the visitors’ chances.

Atlético were able to score an early goal through Morata and hold on for the clean sheet without conceding a shot on target. For much of the match, though, they looked lackluster in attack. Based on this team’s transfer window and inspiring preseason, an expectation exists that Atleti should be able to punish defensive-minded teams more easily rather than sit back at the end and grit out slim victories.

Atlético’s move toward expensive attackers mirrors the philosophy of summer windows past. João Félix set the club arrival record by over $50 million and nine of Atleti’s top 10 signings have been either forwards or midfielders. The list contains stars, but a few flameouts too. Antoine Griezmann was the biggest success story, with Radamel Falcao right behind him. In addition, Morata has impressed in 2019.

However, Diego Costa’s second stint in red and white has been mediocre — even more so taking into consideration his large fee ($75 million). Kévin Gameiro and Jackson Martínez — both $30 million-plus arrivals — weren’t around for long. Vitolo ($41 million) has struggled for fitness, while Thomas Lemar ($80 million) left a lot to be desired in his debut season.

But Atlético’s best deals for attackers came at bargain prices. Griezmann was signed for less than $35 million. Costa’s 2010 fee was less than a million and Raúl García came in from Osasuna for about $15 million. Meanwhile, current stars Saúl and Koke are both academy graduates.

Simeone’s teams often take months to gel, but with so much money spent on fresh faces all over the squad, this team has to be able to find a balance between grinding out victories and turning on the style. Too often in the past, the former has taken precedent over the latter.

While the back four looked strong on Sunday, the new faces mean that the clean sheets will not be as much of a guarantee as they were in previous seasons. Though José Maria Giménez has blossomed into an elite center back and Stefan Savić has shown glimpses. Atlético will have to make up some of those goals allowed with more goals scored.

Simeone tried a 4-2-1-2 formation against Getafe. It’s a more dynamic shape than the rigid 4-4-2 that has borne success but also limited what Atlético could do offensively. It allows for a central attacking midfielder — such as Lemar or João Félix — to both showcase his skills and lay off passes to the strikers.

Atletico Madrid v Getafe - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

I think João Félix is more suited to this role than Lemar, who spent last season out wide. For now, the Portuguese is by far the team’s best option at striker. The drop-off from Félix to Šaponjić or an out-of-position midfielder is too much until Costa comes back from injury or Rodrigo comes in from Valencia.

In the meantime, I feel a player as versatile as Saúl — who has played at left back, center back, water carrier and winger — is worth a shot in this position. Swapping the Spain international and France international Lemar could see the mattress makers attack better through the middle in possession and play with more liveliness without it.

The Rojiblancos are expected to put up a real title challenge with all they have money spent. There’s little room to slip up, and more proactive performances should not be aberrations but the norm for this season.