Winning one league title is hard enough. Doing it twice in as many years is a monumental task.
Here’s how difficult it is: no current Atlético Madrid player was born the last time a team not named Barcelona or Real Madrid won LaLiga in consecutive seasons. Athletic Club are the last team outside the recognized duopoly to capture back-to-back titles — in 1983 and 1984.
Meanwhile, Atlético have not repeated as league champions since 1951. But seven decades on, after tumultuous summers at Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabéu, many are favoring Diego Simeone’s men to win LaLiga again.
And the club captain isn’t exactly running from the pressure.
“We’re very excited (about the upcoming season),” Koke said at a league-wide awards gala last month. “We intend to take the title again.”
Yes, Barcelona will be without Lionel Messi, as the game’s greatest player completed a move to Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday. Within a two-month span, Madrid lost Sergio Ramos, Raphaël Varane, and Zinedine Zidane. It has not been a good summer for either club.
Yet, talent and vast experience remains on hand in both squads — not to mention a strong Sevilla team has (for now) held onto top players like Jules Koundé and Youssef En-Nesyri. Villarreal and Real Sociedad will have legitimate top-four ambitions, too. The league looks as balanced as it’s been in years — even decades.
All this to say — the fight for the title this coming season might be even tougher than the last.
If the rojiblancos are to secure another league championship — and mount challenges in other competitions — here are three questions they will have to answer during the campaign.
Question 1: Will Atlético run it back with the 3-5-2 formation?
Reports from training Wednesday indicated that for the season opener at Celta Vigo, Simeone will indeed align his team in the 3-5-2 which was so successful last season.
BACK TO WORK!— Belén Sánchez García (@Belen_Boli) August 11, 2021
Vuelve la Liga y el Atleti defiende título... Partido a partido, CELTA.
João, Felipe y M.Paulo, lesión.
Herrera y Arias, sobrecarga.
Pimera prueba del Cholo:
Oblak; Carrasco, Savic, Giménez, Hermoso, Saúl; Koke, Kondogbia, Lemar; Llorente y Correa. pic.twitter.com/OKuNrc42HZ
The start of the season could prove tricky — this summer ran long for several players, and it might take a few games for Atlético to find a rhythm once more. Atleti had representatives at EURO 2020, the Copa America, the Gold Cup, and the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Stefan Savić, Luis Suárez, and Kieran Trippier are among the colchoneros who didn’t play a single preseason minute.
But even a slow start shouldn’t change the team’s approach.
The tactical changes installed last season — for which assistant coach Nelson Vivas deserves some credit, too — saw Atlético play its most vibrant football in years. With virtually the entire squad returning in 2021/22 (plus a couple new additions), Simeone can continue expanding the team’s style without reverting entirely to the once-standard 4-4-2.
The first-choice defense — if all three are fit — remains Savić, José Giménez, and Mario Hermoso. All three are now capable distributors, with Hermoso the best of the bunch and the rugged Savić/Giménez duo able to mask the Spaniard’s occasional lapses in one-on-one duels.
Simeone can field a midfield three of Koke, Marcos Llorente, and shiny new toy Rodrigo De Paul alongside first-choice wingbacks Trippier and Yannick Carrasco. Llorente — who might start the year as a nominal forward — can be replaced by the reborn Thomas Lemar, looking to build on his solid 2020/21 campaign.
Up front, Rafa Mir is expected to join from Wolves this week, and he has the profile to succeed in the setup as a speedy volume shooter who wins headers. Now a full-time second striker who offers something different, Ángel Correa thrived in the back half of last season and looks like he might have a double-digit goal tally in him this time around.
Finally, though it can stretch the team defensively, continuing to press ahead with this formation is the best shot Atlético have to keep getting match-winners from Suárez as he enters his age-35 season.
And if all else fails, league MVP Jan Oblak can come to the rescue.
Question 2: Will João Félix stay healthy?
If you are João Félix, then congratulations! Apart from you, no single player can better bridge the dichotomy between what Atlético are (an elite domestic team that appears overmatched against wealthier and more physical Champions League opponents) and what Atlético could be (a side with a well-drilled defense that can really challenge in Europe with one more explosive attacker).
Félix missed the entire preseason after undergoing right ankle surgery last month, an operation the club hopes will eliminate the pesky injuries that derailed his debut season in Madrid and severely hampered his second season. He managed 31 league appearances in 2020/21, but he did not score after February. Before contracting COVID-19 and more ankle problems, the Portuguese was on pace for much more than 12 total goal contributions.
Even with his inconsistent form since joining Atlético, the 21-year-old has left little doubt he is a unique, even special talent. If this is his year, he will quickly evolve into one of LaLiga’s most marketable assets with Messi gone. His abilities on the ball can be truly transformational — a scary thought for a team that has already won one Liga with this core in place.
Question 3: Which surprise contributors will emerge this season?
I have been a Geoffrey Kondogbia fan for years and was pleased when Atlético acquired him at a discounted fee last fall. I think he can really pop in his second season at the club, and his characteristics are a bit different from Simeone’s other midfield options — he’s a throwback pivot whose length and build allow him to bust counterattacks up the middle and restart the attack for his team. At 28, he’s in his prime, with room to improve.
However, if Saúl Ñíguez ultimately stays, his potential return to form could be a huge boost to a midfield already rich in depth, or a defense needing one more left-sided reinforcement.
Saúl is set to begin the season at left wingback after playing in all five preseason games. He hit a low point last season as the team’s evolution seemed to leave him behind, but no firm offers have materialized for him despite great speculation he would be off to England at this point.
Saúl won’t try to force an exit given his history with Atlético and current standing as the club’s fourth captain. Though hanging on to him past this summer probably wasn’t what Simeone and sporting director Andrea Berta were planning, it could pay huge dividends if Atleti hit another spring roadblock and need inspiration. The 26-year-old’s quality is still there, somewhere.