5 Reasons Why Atletico Madrid Will Not Defend Their La Liga Title
Atletico Madrid were surprising but well-deserved winners of last season’s Primera Division title, breaking the nine-year hegemony of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
It was an incredible achievement and one for which Diego Simeone and his squad deserve maximum credit. To some degree it was even more impressive that Atletico’s run to the Champions League final given the consistency required to win a league title.
But are Atletico capable of retaining their crown?
Simeone is an excellent coach, his players are well drilled and Atletico’s summer signings are a good fit for the structure he has established. He inspires such fidelity in his charges that it goes without saying that Atletico will put up a good fight.
There are, however, a number of factors that will work against Simeone and his team, and ultimately mean that it will be very difficult for them to become the first team from outside the big two to win consecutive league titles since Athletic Bilbao in the mid-'80s.
Here are five reasons why we believe Atletico are unlikely to defend their La Liga title.
Diego Costa's Goals and Presence Will Be Missed
Diego Costa was Atletico’s top scorer last season. He scored 27 goals in the league, eight in the Champions League and one in the Copa del Rey for a grand total of 36 goals in 50 appearances.
He was a striker perfectly suited to Simeone’s system—adept with his back to goal and deadly when facing it. His unerring desire for victory helped spur the team on to success.
Atletico received a fair price of £32 million for Costa from Chelsea this summer and used the money to partially fund the signings of three new forwards: Antoine Griezmann, Mario Mandzukic and Raul Jimenez.
Griezmann can be viewed as a replacement for David Villa, who departed for MLS after scoring 13 goals last season. That leaves Manduzkic and Jimenez vying to fill Costa’s boots.
Mandzukic is by far the more experienced of the pair and had a very good scoring record in Germany with Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich. He will start the season as the first-choice striker.
Mandzukic is not, however, quite the same force of nature as Costa. He is clearly a good player, but lacks the talismanic qualities exhibited by his predecessor.
Shorn of Costa’s drive and determination, Atletico are likely to be a little less menacing in the final third this season.
New Defensive Recruits Will Take Time to Settle
Atletico’s defensive record was one of the most impressive aspects of their league-title success. They conceded just 26 goals in 38 matches—by far the best record in the division.
There have, however, been a couple of key changes in personnel over the summer that are likely to have a negative effect on Atletico’s defensive efficiency.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois returned to his parent club Chelsea and was joined in West London by left-back Filipe Luis, who joined the Blues in a £15.8 million move.
Their places in the side are likely to be taken by two new signings: Jan Oblak and Guilherme Siqueira.
The latter is a solid full-back but a step down in quality from Filipe Luis. The former, Oblak, is a young goalkeeper, full of promise but unlikely to produce Courtois-like performances in his first season.
It could be argued that last season’s defensive record was more a function of a well-organised system than the individual qualities of the back five—a point that would appear to be backed up by the fact that Atletico have conceded just once during pre-season.
But even if that were the case, it will still take a little time for the new signings to become fully acquainted with both the system and their new teammates. In the meantime, Atletico are likely to be a tad less secure that last season.
They Are Unlikely to Avoid Injuries to the Same Degree
Atletico had the most concentrated squad in La Liga last season.
As per the table below, their top-five, -11 and -16 players by minutes played were on the field for more time than the equivalent players at any other Primera Division side.
|Minutes Played by Top (x) Players|
|Team||Top 5||Top 11||Top 16|
|Celta de Vigo||13858||26671||34560|
|All underlying minutes played data courtesy of Soccerway.com|
Yet despite deploying the same players for more minutes than their contemporaries, and also going all the way through to the Champions League final, Atletico were able to avoid any serious injuries to key players.
Arda Turan endured a three-week injury layoff in April, while Diego Costa struggled for full fitness in the final weeks of the season, but Atletico otherwise made their way through the campaign relatively unscathed.
This could simply be a function of excellent coaching and medical staff (as per James Horncastle, head fitness coach Oscar Ortega is highly admired by AC Milan), and naturally fit players. Indeed, in the 2012-13 season, Atletico had a similar squad concentration (1-5: 15,637 minutes; 1-11: 30,048 minutes; 1-16: 36,254 minutes).
But it is surely too much to expect such a relatively small squad to avoid injuries to the same extent for a third consecutive campaign.
Barcelona and Real Madrid Won’t Drop As Many Points This Time Around
Both Barcelona and Real Madrid had new coaches at the helm last season and were, as a result, far more inconsistent than in other recent campaigns.
Not since the 2008-09 season had the pair dropped as many as the 54 collective points they spurned last season. Indeed, they had collectively dropped no more than 43 in any of the previous four seasons (author calculation).
In the 2009-10 season they dropped just 33 points between them—21 less than last season.
In Luis Enrique, Barcelona again have a new coach, but they have moved quickly to address some of last season’s weaknesses in the transfer market.
Real Madrid enter the second year of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign in high spirits following last season’s Champions League success. They too have added to their squad. If Ancelotti is able to accommodate his new players into a coherent structure, Madrid can be expected to improve on last season’s showing.
The truth, then, is that even if Atletico are able to reproduce their heroics of the last campaign, it is unlikely to be enough to see them hang onto their title.
The Rest of La Liga Will Adapt to Their Tactics
Atletico won last season’s league title playing a style of football that was different to most of the sides in Spain.
They were content to cede possession, defend as a compact unit and then break out quickly towards goal. As explained by Washington Post columnist Michael Caley, this had the effect of maximising the quality of their shots on goal whilst reducing the quality of the shots they conceded.
Atletico were also highly proficient from set pieces, with, as per WhoScored, 23.38 percent of their goals coming from dead-ball situations.
This year, teams will know what to expect from Atletico.
Defeats to the likes of Levante and Osasuna last season showed that they can be vulnerable against teams who are content to sit back and prevent them playing their natural game.
The number of teams willing to play in the same way against them this year is likely to increase. It would not be at all surprising to see Atletico drop more points against sides in the bottom half of the table this coming season.