Something strange is going on with Atlético Madrid this summer. They sold some of their oldest and best players and brought in both bulk and quality to replace them, sure. But in terms of what Diego Simeone is trying to do tactically, it looks like we will see a massive change in how Atlético play next season.
For the last number of years, it was implied that the mattress makers would change their style. They were growing as a club and the signings pointed toward a shift in philosophy. Gelson Martins arrived, as did Thomas Lemar, to add nuance in attack. Rodri was brought back from Villarreal, and there was speculation it was with a view to a more possession-based approach. The more things changed, however, the more they stayed the same as players adapted to Simeone rather than the other way around.
That is until this summer. It’s explicit now.
“The manager has been trying to play 4-3-3,” Koke told El País recently. “He wants to be more attacking, have more of the ball and to look forward a little bit more.
“This year is one of the years that I am most excited,” he said, hinting that there definitely has been a change of tact this summer.
The arrival of João Félix, the relative unknown capacity of his ability and the speed with which he can transition to LaLiga makes it a gamble. But if his performance against Real Madrid at MetLife Stadium is anything to go by, his role will be something of a will-o’-the-wisp, taking up residency in opponents’ penalty areas and in their heads with a series of dipped shoulder moves and swerving hips. He will be given license to roam and with boundless amounts of energy brought in at full-back (Renán Lodi and Kieran Trippier), Atlético will be wide enough to make space for the 19-year-old to do damage.
As we know, Simeone is a superstitious man and someone loyal to his principles. But he is a proud man, too. After watching his side collapse against Juventus, he knew his defensive ideas needed a buttress to support them as the squad moves fully into the next stage of what has been a wildly successful period under his reign.
The re-design was partly forced and partly down to Simeone’s own acceptance that losing the same way over and over again wouldn’t cut it. Doctrine can so often be the last tool of the unimaginative, and Cholo wasn’t prepared to burn out at the club clutching onto the same ideas with which he arrived.
That is not to suggest, however, that the chip on their shoulder has disappeared. The two departures that hurt the most will be sure to keep that in place for the coming years. Rodri, who believed he would not and could not develop any more under Simeone, is one that hurts even more than Antoine Griezmann. Now at Manchester City, Rodri was replaced by a player who not only understands and accepts the defensive mentality that Simeone needs from his deepest-lying midfielder — but needs it to thrive.
“Marcos is maybe more positional when it comes to defending and he’s more aggressive when it comes to stealing the ball,” Koke continued in his appraisal of Atletico’s summer. “Rodri likes to be on the ball more, to play with more of ‘la pausa’ (a term for hesitating to let things develop in front of you). Llorente is more direct.”
For Griezmann to leave to win trophies, against Atlético’s direct rival in every single competition they will play in, also stings. But the bet on Félix can be looked at as a bet against Griezmann. Simeone wants to get the very best out of the Portuguese, well, because that will make the team better, but in a sense to prove to Griezmann that he was replaceable after all.
Simeone’s team won’t be skimping on their work-rate, but having more of the ball might make it easier on their legs over the course of the season and it might make it easier for fans to watch, too. Late stage Cholismo is becoming more unpredictable — and most importantly, perhaps, it will make Atlético more difficult to prepare for and play against.