This column is part of our “Fixing Atlético” series. You can read Robbie Dunne’s analysis of the right-back position here.
More than most, Atlético Madrid understand an elite forward is the difference between competing for titles and actually winning them.
Despite a second-half wobble last season, Luis Suárez’s 21 goals — and 11 game-winning tallies — steered Atleti to its first league crown since 2013/2014. In that season, Diego Costa established himself as a premier striker, scoring 27 goals in LaLiga and eight more in the Champions League.
Between Costa and Suárez, Atlético purchased a number of expensive, traditional center-forwards. None stuck. Mario Mandžukić lasted one season. Jackson Martínez lasted half a season. Kévin Gameiro was sold at a loss to Valencia after two years. Álvaro Morata was sent on loan to Juventus in order to accommodate Suárez.
Atlético cannot count on another gift from Barcelona à la Suárez or David Villa before him. So if El Pistolero leaves when his contract expires this summer, it is imperative the club gets his substitute right.
But what does “getting it right” really mean when Simeone has multiple capable forwards still at his disposal?
As we’ve written and discussed on numerous Colchonero Chat episodes this season, part of the reason Atlético’s title defense went off the rails is because the playing squad is severely imbalanced.
Antoine Griezmann’s deadline day return from Barça added a fifth forward to a 22-man squad that only featured four central defenders. Unsurprisingly, injuries to José Giménez and Stefan Savić — combined with Jan Oblak’s odd dip in form — created a snowball effect that has left Atlético unable to defend set pieces properly, and afraid to get caught out on the counterattack.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about.
There is good news about Atlético’s season thus far — the team is showing it could roll out one of LaLiga’s best attacks for years to come.
- Ángel Correa has already tied his career high with nine goals across all competitions and is on track for another season with three-plus shot-creating actions per 90 minutes. He was recently rewarded with a contract extension to 2026 and isn’t going anywhere.
- Despite Griezmann’s underwhelming season in LaLiga (only 0.24 expected goals per 90 minutes), Simeone trusts him implicitly. The Frenchman’s performances in the Champions League group stage demonstrated he is still a world-class forward on his day. Atlético will almost certainly trigger his option to buy next year.
- Then there’s João Félix, whose strong underlying statistics still have not corresponded with a breakthrough. This season has been Félix’s most frustrating season yet. His shot volume has increased, and his shot quality has improved. He’s piled up a bunch of shot-creating actions (3.62 per 90, second on the team) as well as eight progressive carries and a team-high 3.48 carries into the final third (per 90).
Yet the reality is Félix has made only five starts in LaLiga and scored just two goals. At some point, hope will fade that the advanced metrics darling will showcase a consistent end product. But Simeone seems intent on continuing to work with the Portuguese, and the club has no immediate plans to sell a player on whom it spent €126 million.
- Most encouraging is Matheus Cunha’s growing playing time and influence. The 22-year-old has registered a staggering 1.13 goals and assists and 0.85 expected goals + assists per 90 minutes, both team-high marks. Cunha has yet to crack the 500-minute mark in LaLiga, but his display in Atlético’s comeback win over Valencia is one of a handful that shows a player with a star trajectory — the Brazilian is quick, agile, super-skilled, and plays with great intensity.
Many Atlético fans are upset that summer 2021 target Dušan Vlahović joined Juventus from Fiorentina in January. But it is obvious that Vlahović and his representation were waiting for Juve to get its ducks in a row before engineering a move there. The money Atleti needed to acquire Vlahović — over €100 million when factoring in agent’s fees and the player’s contract — would be better-spent on central defense depth and a quality defensive midfielder.
Then, attention can turn to signing a new forward with the rest of the money, seeing as the position is arguably the strongest in the squad already.
The Colchoneros still will go hunting for forward insurance this summer as part of a probable squad refresh. The three names below have been linked with a move to Madrid in recent weeks, so it’s worth examining their potential fit in a Simeone-coached squad.
Boyé is said to be in Atlético’s orbit for the summer, available for his €25 million release clause (which will be reduced if Elche suffer relegation).
The 25-year-old is having a standout season for Los Franjiverdes, outpacing his expected goals mark and scoring seven times from 14 shots on target. He is direct and likes to take on opposing defenders, as his 2.34 completed dribbles per 90 this season can attest. In addition, his aggressive middle-third and attacking-third pressing aligns with how Simeone wants his forwards to play.
Boyé could be quality insurance for Correa and Cunha, though his upside appears modest. He’s also cost-effective compared to other forwards on the market, which definitely appeals to Atlético’s decision-makers.
The Benfica marksman is tipped to be Suárez’s eventual replacement in Uruguay’s national team, and he very well might be the top choice to supplant El Pistolero at Atlético this summer.
Núñez has rung up 1.23 goals per 90 this season in Portugal, with 15 goals from 25 shots on target. The 22-year-old is extremely fast, and he can play on the left or through the middle. He’s also played in the Champions League and in Spain before — his 16-goal output at Segunda side Almería in 2019/20 drew Atleti’s interest but convinced Benfica to part with a club-record fee to sign him.
Núñez has star potential and a substantial release clause, said to be around €150 million. Clubs that missed on Vlahović or Erling Haaland will be lining up to negotiate for him — West Ham were interested in signing him before the January window shut. Atleti’s scouts work extensively in Portugal, and the club signed Félix from Benfica nearly three years ago.
Atlético’s fascination with Lille’s first team makes it likely the club will consider (or are considering) its Canada international at forward.
David’s 13-goal season helped Lille win Ligue 1 a season ago, and his second year in France has been even better. The 22-year-old is second in the league with 12 goals (from only 20 shots on target), and he sports a 0.54 xG per 90 mark.
Eleven of David’s 12 goals have come from within 12 yards. He is a pure finisher at this point in his career and does not do a lot of running with the ball at his feet. Should Atlético target him, the concern is how Simeone would get the best from a player who doesn’t regularly create his own opportunities — the team has struggled all season to do that for the physically-limited Suárez.
Robbie Dunne has put together another interesting data cluster for this piece, which groups players with similar characteristics (and statistics) to Luis Suárez from the 2020/21 season. The chart is below, and I’ve picked three more forwards from this batch who could be considered “outside the box” options if Atlético more-or-less choose to replace Suárez directly — rather than seeking another Correa or another Cunha-type player.
Beneath this chart is a direct comparison between Suárez this season and three forwards who stood out in the cluster — Juanmi, Gianluca Scamacca, and Giovanni Simeone.
Late-bloomer Juanmi has enjoyed a breakout season at Real Betis — his 12 goals (from 7.3 expected goals) are a big reason Manuel Pellegrini’s side is third in LaLiga at the moment. He is hard-working and versatile, with experience all across the forward line. However, he’s on a contract to 2024 and Betis are not under pressure to sell the 28-year-old.
Scamacca has starred for Sassuolo and is likely on his way to Inter Milan this summer, but if Atlético wanted to hijack the move and convince the player to leave Serie A, he would be a good guy to get as a Suárez substitute. The 23-year-old is an imposing aerial presence at 6’5’’ and presses consistently. Like the aforementioned Jonathan David, he is a penalty area specialist — seven of his nine goals this season have come inside the 18-yard box.
Cholo Simeone’s son Giovanni is enjoying a good season as a penalty area poacher at Hellas Verona. He is developing into a solid center-forward at 26 years old, with 12 goals to his name despite ringing up only 6.3 xG. But his dad has never expressed any interest in having Atlético bring him over from Italy. Maybe that changes before Cholo calls it quits.
One last name that caught my eye would be Union Berlin’s Taiwo Awoniyi. Atleti went shopping in Germany last summer and landed Cunha. Another player the club could feasibly target from the Bundesliga is this 24-year-old Nigeria international. Awoniyi, who joined Union Berlin from Liverpool on a permanent deal last summer, has nine goals in 17 appearances this season without much over-performance — 0.68 goals and 0.61 expected goals per 90.