On paper, the Croatian striker should be a very good fit for the Rojiblancos, but how has the Mario Mandzukic signing worked for Diego Simeone’s team? Not ideally so far.
There are two common misconceptions about Mandzukic.
The first is that he’s a world-class striker, which he is not. At least not in the traditional sense. On occasions, he would look like one in Bayern, surrounded by the likes of Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller and Franck Ribery, who were all more than capable of providing for him. On others, particularly during the latter stages of last season’s Champions League, his limitations within Pep Guardiola’s system were exposed.
“Let’s be honest, I can’t play to my strengths under Guardiola’s style,” the striker himself admitted in Sportske novosti, a Croatian daily newspaper, via The Guardian. “It’s best for both parties that we go our separate ways.”
And so they did in the summer, making room for Bayern’s new star, Robert Lewandowski. Mandzukic, meanwhile, signed for Atletico Madrid in a €15 million transfer, supposedly as a replacement for the Chelsea-bound Diego Costa.
Only that is the other misconception: that he can, in fact, adequately replace the striker who is wreaking havoc on Premier League defences these days. While there are obvious similarities in style between the two players—for one, both are imposingly physical and aggressive—Mandzukic is not a like-for-like replacement.
The biggest difference is, of course, that the Croatian will probably never score as many goals as the Brazilian-born Spaniard did last season, when he netted 27 in the league—a whopping 35 per cent of Atletico’s La Liga total. In terms of finishing, Mandzukic simply isn’t as prolific.
But they surely were fully aware of all that at the Vicente Calderon. His inability to match Guardiola’s requirements at Bayern, or his good, but not great scoring record, doesn't mean he doesn’t possess enough quality for top-level football. He does, but only if used in a certain way—if he is allowed to play to his strengths, as Mandzukic put it himself.
So what do these strengths include and—more importantly—are they being put to good use in Simeone’s team?
Acting as a target man and scoring is just not enough for a modern striker. He also has to drop off opposing centre-backs, pull wide, hold the ball up, make runs behind and press aggressively as the first line of defence.
Mandzukic does all of these things very well. He may lack the positional intelligence and versatility of Lewandowski, as well as Costa’s one-on-one play, but he’s an extremely hard worker. The Croat is extraordinarily athletic, spearheading attacks with sheer force and ferocity, as well as pressing the ball with his fantastic stamina.
And he just may be the best there is when it comes to aerial duels and heading the ball: 39 per cent of his goals for Bayern last season were headers, according to the numbers on Squawka.
These qualities should sit really well with Simeone’s philosophy at Atletico.
The manager puts hard work and selflessness on the pedestal, and Mandzukic saw a kindred spirit in him, as he told Sportske novosti this month, via beIN Sports. He revealed he had offers from England as well but claimed “Simeone was key” in his decision to move to Madrid. “His style and passion, with so much success, they are the things that inspire me,” Mandzukic said. “I love guys like him, he’s a real fighter.”
Two months into the season, and it seems that Atletico Madrid and Mandzukic are still some way off finding true compatibility. The striker is playing his game, moving and battling almost exactly like he did at Bayern. He has scored six goals in 13 appearances so far, and it’s very encouraging that he found the net in three of his last four matches, the latest one being a decider in a 1-0 away win over Getafe.
However, the team has only scored 15 goals in nine league games so far; in the Getafe game, the impression was they’re looking to Mandzukic to run the channels and get in behind the defence like Costa did, rather than trying to use the specific new qualities he brought into the team.
It’s only logical to assume the Croatian was signed in an effort to reduce the team’s overreliance on their star man up front and try to get others to score more often. That means they should get into promising chances, using the space he creates by his movement and pressing. But Koke, Raul Garcia and Arda Turan have only scored a goal each, while Antoine Griezmann, the other big attacking signing this summer, has yet to find the net in nine league appearances.
For now, they don’t seem to utilize Mandzukic’s aerial power too well, either—maybe they should be targeting him more often with crosses, which is something this team definitely has the potential to do, or use him as a focal point for their quick counters, where he could do lay-offs and hold the ball for those crucial two or three seconds until help arrives.
He will always scrape something from close range and drive defenders into making mistakes, but Atletico will need him to do more.
“He and Diego Costa are very different,” Radomir Antic, the former Atletico Madrid manager, said earlier this month in an interview with AS, via Inside Spanish Football. “That’s why Mandzukic has to adapt to Atletico, but Atletico should also adapt to him.”
It’s still very early in the season, though.
Maybe it’s just a matter of some of the other players being slightly off form, although Atletico have been relatively successful so far. Maybe these things will soon come into place when they fully realize Mandzukic is not Costa and change some of their old habits.
The striker, too, still needs to fully integrate.