Basking in the glory of a tactically supreme derby victory over fierce rivals Real Madrid, Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid are recognising their pre-season designation as domestic and European contenders. For many, this may come as a surprise, but for supporters of the Spanish game – it is anything but. Following Sunday’s 3-1 victory at the Metropolitano, Simeone’s outfit sits seventh in La Liga, four points behind Athletic Club, seven behind Barcelona, eight behind Real Madrid and nine behind Girona, with not one but two games in hand.
It was an assured performance and dealt Carlo Ancelotti’s men their first defeat of the domestic campaign, a match that would see Antoine Griezmann get on the score sheet, whilst Toni Kroos grabbed the sole goal of the match for Los Blancos. Eight years after scoring in either leg to send Juventus to the Champions League Final at the expense of Real Madrid, Álvaro Morata once again stole the show against his boyhood club and grabbed a brace. So far this season, he has scored a hat-trick against Georgia in Euro qualifying, the first goal of Atleti’s campaign in a 3-1 win vs. Granada, and a brace against Rayo Vallecano. His five goals put Morata level with Jude Bellingham and Robert Lewandowski atop La Liga’s scoring charts.
The evolution of Atlético Madrid over the past two seasons is remarkable. From a perennial juggernaut in defensive certainty, supporters have witnessed a growth into an ambitious attacking incursion – marshalled by an enigmatic Frenchman at its heart. It is a testament to a club’s insistence on backing a managerial project that we witness Simeone’s masterstroke in tactical transformation. From a side that exited European competition with less than a whimper last season, their Argentine supremo led his group to an impressive finish to the domestic campaign.
Atleti ended the 2022/23 domestic season as the form side in Spain, losing fewer games than Barcelona and Madrid and registering more goals in the same period. This attacking upsurge has carried into the new campaign, with a surprise defeat to Valencia only their third defeat since January. El Cholo is regarded as one of the finest coaches in the modern game and adored by Los Colchoneros. Throughout his time at the club, he has engineered multiple victories, many memorable moments and a commendable array of silverware for the loyal support.
His transformation in style has occurred over time, though, and a more forward-thinking approach was evident during the run toward La Liga honours in the 2020-21 campaign. His side netted 67 times during that memorable season – the first time to achieve 60 or more league goals in four years. So, what changed for the 11-time winners of Spain’s ultimate footballing title, and what can we expect from this side moving forward?
Known to be a fiercely proud and stubborn individual, Simeone opted to adopt a formation shift to a modern 352 shape, presenting an entirely new dynamic for the players. The system allows a more expressive style, with several key names supplying career-high metrics. The setup maximises the attacking philosophy of a marauding full-back contributing to attacking phases, with several strategically positioned bodies creating overloads throughout numerous channels.
This evolution in play permitted the Spanish giants to generate an abundance of opportunities in the attacking third. For context, Atleti scored 51 goals in the 2019/20 campaign – the lowest during Simeone’s time in charge. Furthermore, the side was transformed into a more expressive unit – ensuring that ball retention would be central to their success. Their last title-winning campaign returned an impressive 52% possession – the first time the club had achieved this under the guidance of their veteran manager.
The squad contains a necessary combination of youthful energy and experienced shoulders through a meticulously planned spine. A familiar feature of Koke, Saúl Ñíguez and Marcos Llorente boast an average age of 29 and have contributed well over 1,000 appearances for the club. But depth is a notable feature in this midfield, with exceptional options in Pablo Barrios, Thomas Lemar and Rodrigo De Paul offering a variety of alternative skills and traits to change the dynamic of any given fixture.
In defence, the outstanding partnership of José María Giménez and Stefan Savić remains a regular feature for the team’s defensive structure, with Mario Hermoso completing the back three. Hermoso supplies an integral role with distribution duties, regularly ranking in Europe’s top three for progressive passes.
Furthermore, veteran Belgian Axel Witsel’s versatility is invaluable in dropping deep and often supplying an alternative outlet at the heart of the three. 34-year-old César Azpilicueta shows no signs of slowing down and regularly impacts Simeone’s driving force from the back.
The back three sit in front of the formidable figure of Jan Oblak. The Slovenian remains widely regarded as one of the finest shot-stoppers in world football, elevating his games to new levels in this impressive attacking structure. In attack, Simeone is spoilt for choice through a combination of Álvaro Morata, Ángel Correa and Memphis Depay, with the majestic Antoine Griezmann orchestrating the magnificence in transitions.
Following his return to the club in 2022, Griezmann has been the poster boy of the resurgence of this great side. Having endured a frustrating spell at Barcelona, he ended the 2022-23 campaign with a remarkable figure of 31 goal contributions. The Frenchman was previously the side’s primary attacking outlet, but he now drops deeper to link play and dictate the forward motion of his colleagues.
Take Morata, for example. His 13 goals in La Liga last season was his highest tally since departing Spain for Chelsea in 2017. Griezmann supplied four assists for the Spaniard – cementing a notable understanding between the pair. The Frenchman has embraced the creator role and supplied a third of Correa’s domestic goal tally. Despite his efficiency in playmaking, the forward remains a goal threat – with his strike in Sunday’s derby his second in five domestic outings.
Having fallen agonisingly close at the final stage of the Champions League on two occasions under Simeone, this is a side that many feel can challenge Manchester City for their crown. Experience is invaluable, and Atlético Madrid possesses a squad with a considerable European pedigree. Many of the side’s key individuals have played a pivotal role during previous runs, with several also featuring at the peak of International fixtures for their countries.
This experience will be crucial during high-pressure moments and imperative to juggle the difficulties of competing across multiple competitions. Matchday One of the UEFA Champions League group stage supplied another devastating reminder for the side, as Lazio’s Ivan Provedel became only the fourth-ever goalkeeper to score in the competition with a 95th-minute equaliser in a one-all draw. It was a stark message that nothing is guaranteed, and concentration is imperative for a prosperous campaign.
Atlético Madrid is famed for their competitiveness and structure. However, success in football is often unpredictable, and history will only remember those who succeed. Diego Simeone has built a formidable squad and tailored a brand of attacking football that can rival Europe’s very best. For many, 2023-24 could very well supply further silverware to the cabinets at the Metropolitano, with their French enigma central to another memorable season.
By: Shaun Connolly / @shaunconnolly85
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Flor Tan Jun / Getty Images
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