Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

New-look Atletico Madrid look greater than sum of their parts ahead of La Liga opener

Spanish club have advertised collective strengths while dealing with many comings-and-goings in squad

Atletico Madrid have a young but strong squad to take on the challenges of the new season. Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP
Atletico Madrid have a young but strong squad to take on the challenges of the new season. Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP

Pre-season results are an unreliable guide to what emerges in the true heat of competition. But it is hard not to pause at Atletico Madrid’s full set of victories from their summer warm-ups or the manner in which two of them in particular have been achieved.

Seven Atletico goals against Real Madrid is a stimulus in any circumstances and at any venue – the 7-3 win in July took place in the United States – while defeating Juventus eight days before La Liga begins carried extra satisfaction. The Italian champions had knocked Atletico out of the last Uefa Champions League.

But most of all, through the summer friendlies, an Atletico dealing with many comings-and-goings in the squad have advertised their collective strengths. They have also looked like a unit quickly absorbing their routines and finding one another's wavelengths.

Under Diego Simeone’s long period as manager, that has been part of what made Atletico effective: a clear, shared sense of purpose. But in the biggest transfer-window upheaval in of his eight-year tenure, they might have been expected to encounter more bumps on the road.

To recap, Simeone has lost some of his most cherished allies since June.

Diego Godin, rock of Atletico’s fabled defence during a run that yielded a league title, two Champions League finals, a pair of Europa League successes and a Copa del Rey final win over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, has gone to Inter. The full-backs who accompanied Godin and had Simeone’s absolute trust through much of that time, Juanfran and Filipe Luis, have also departed.

Antoine Griezmann has finished playing his part in the Atleti ascent, Barcelona having activated his €120 million (Dh489m) buyout clause in what has become a rancorous exit. Griezmann’s four years with Atletico elevated him to world-class, and gave both a sharper point to Atletico’s attacking football and perhaps some extra finesse to a squad whose ruggedness was a chief characteristic of the early Simeone years.

Griezmann’s goals, his passes and clever instincts in the final third of the pitch are hard to replicate.

Rodri moved to Manchester City, taking away a formidable sentry in the centre of midfield, though his lucrative sale, like Griezmann’s, has given Simeone access to the sort of transfer budget Atletico have not enjoyed since they were building up debts and dismissing managers with abandon in the 1990s.

Simeone was a player at the club for some of that rollercoaster epoch, and he learned lessons he would apply to management: One was that, if the staff come and go too frequently, identity gets lost.

His Atletico have had a marked identity coursing through their veins, to the point where it sometimes seemed the most effective way to establish yourself as new signing was to have been an old signing.

Felipe Luis left for Chelsea and came back. So did Diego Costa, whose summer has suggested his contributions in the months ahead might be every bit as spikily decisive as in his heyday as Simeone’s combative spearhead. Fernando Torres was another who resurrected his career after Simeone invited him to recapture his youthful mojo at the club where he started as a professional.

Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone seems to believe continuity leads to a strong identity at a football club. Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP
Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone seems to believe continuity leads to a strong identity at a football club. Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP

Meanwhile, star signings without a background at the club have often disappointed – the striker Jackson Martinez one such; Nicolas Gaitan another – a pattern that Thomas Lemar, the €72m signing from Monaco in 2018 is anxious not to follow. Lemar has had encouraging moments in this pre-season, and can only be lifted by the buoyancy of the whole squad.

Nor does Lemar carry the burden of a record-breaking price-tag any longer, now that the Griezmann fee has been reinvested in the 19-year-old Joao Felix, a talent so precocious he has barely a year as a first-teamer at Benfica behind him. The €126m Portuguese, slight but quick, nimble and confident in his finishing, has made a stunning impression.

The new captain, Koke, has been struck by his audacity – “he wants the ball, he wants to take people on” – and sees, with the faith placed in Felix, hints at alterations to the style of a future Atletico, who for the majority of Simeone’s tenure would most reliably hurt opponents with counter-attacks, knowing they could rely on their solid foundations at the back.

“The coach wants us to have a bit more possession, and be a bit more attacking,” Koke told El Pais.

But many of the new recruits answer to the traditional fortes of Simeone’s Atletico. They will be strong at delivering set-pieces, Kieran Trippier’s capture from Tottenham Hotspur a guarantee of that. They will be feisty in midfield, with Hector Herrera in from Porto and Marcos Llorente in from Real Madrid.

And though Godin’s authority is not easily cloned, it will be most out of character if goalkeeper Jan Oblak, a prized asset, is very often left looking vulnerable.

Updated: August 18, 2019 08:02 AM

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