Mario Mandzukic Under Most Pressure for Atletico Madrid Following Win over Malmo

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2014

Atletico's Mario Mandzukic, centre, Saul, right, and Atletico's Siqueira, left, offer their t-shirts to the fans during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Getafe at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez stadium in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

In football, adaption is typically a two-way process. For players entering a new environment, there's an adjustment that must occur with respect to their play. For the welcoming club, there's a need to cater to the strengths of a new face. 

For Mario Mandzukic and Atletico Madrid, the balance between such complementary responsibilities is reaching a point of intrigue.

The reason for that is due to a noticeable period of evolution currently transpiring at the Vicente Calderon, a clear phase of slight transformation in the team's methods.

When the Croatian first arrived in the Spanish capital, he was expected to be a natural fit for Los Colchoneros' direct, robust style. No one really expected him to replicate the feats of Diego Costa, but it was anticipated that a compatibility between the parties would be instantly achieved. 

Here was a physical target man heading to an outfit renowned for its aerial dominance, overwhelming power and set-piece excellence: What could go wrong?

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22: Mario Mandzukic of Atletico de Madrid saves on a header during the UEFA Champions League group A match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Malmo FF at Vicente Calderon stadium on October 22, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Go
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Yet, a subdued, stop-start opening to the season in attack has forced a re-think in strategy for Diego Simeone, who, since Atletico's first clash with Malmo back in late October, has discernibly changed the emphasis for his side.

Recognising his club would struggle to challenge for silverware with a misfiring forward setup, the Argentine has enhanced the attacking roles of Koke and Arda Turan, positioning the pair further forward and creating greater fluidity through midfield. Juanfran is also clearly under instruction to charge forward as often as possible from his starting berth at right-back. 

In the first clash with the Swedish champions in Madrid, that trio tore apart the visitors down the right flank. On Tuesday in southern Sweden, they did so again.

Barcelona they'll never be, but there's a growing desire at Atletico to mix the team's physicality with a degree of intricacy. 

VALENCIA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 04:  Mario Mandzukic of Atletico de Madrid reacts as he fails to score during the La Liga match between Valencia CF and Club Atletico de Madrid at Estadi de Mestalla on October 4, 2014 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queima
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

That shift in focus, however, harms Mandzukic's compatibility with the Spanish champions. Incapable—or perhaps unwilling—to be a cohesive link in a pass-based attack, the 28-year-old could soon find himself as his team's ill-fitting piece, just as he did under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich. 

"Let's be honest, I can't play to my strengths under Guardiola's styleno matter how hard I try," the striker said to Sportske novosti this summer, per The Guardian

One can hardly imagine Simeone embodying the full scope of the Spaniard's philosophy, but there is a change occurring at Atletico that is seeing Los Colchoneros embrace a degree of flair and finesse to supplement the strength—just look at a selection of the team's goals from the pair of clashes with Malmo. 

On Tuesday, there was a passage of play that crystallised the fork-in-the-road point that Atletico are soon approaching with Mandzukic. 

From a goal kick, Miguel Angel Moya launched the ball beyond the half-way line, finding the feet of the Croatian. In a yard of space, the striker made the short pass to Koke, who instantly looked for the right-sided attack that's growing in prominence for Atletico. But as Juanfran and Turan shared an interchange on the right sideline, Mandzukic, who could have maintained his position to act as a central fulcrum for an attack, darted back toward the penalty area.

Atletico's most threatening trio eventually conjured a chance for Raul Garcia, but the disconnect was apparent: Koke, Turan and Juanfran wanted to build a move forward where Mandzukic, who wasn't involved again after receiving from Moya, wanted a long ball launched into the box.  

MADRID, SPAIN - AUGUST 30: Mario Mandzukic of Atletico de Madrid hits the goal during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and SD Eibar at Vicente Calderon Stadium on August 30, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Im
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Simeone is evidently orchestrating a different dynamic for Atletico, which will benefit the likes of other new faces such as Antoine Griezmann and Alessio Cerci. 

But one feels Mandzukic won't thrive if the capital club deviate somewhat from their characteristic approach.

Interestingly, former Atletico manager Radomir Antic recently alluded to the two-way adaption process that needs to occur for players at new homes, speaking specifically of the Croatia international. 

"Mandzukic is a striker with different characteristics than the ones the club has had in the previous seasons," he said in an interview with AS, per Inside Spanish Football. "That's why Mandzukic has to adapt to Atletico, but Atletico should also adapt to him."

The greater responsibility, however, feels as though it lies with Mandzukic: He's the one who's beginning to look limited and one-dimensional while his teammates undergo a period of evolution to avoid such tags.  

He left Bayern Munich for that reason, forced out of Bavaria for having a skill set that's too specific, too restricted in Guardiola's expansive style. 

To be a success in Spain, his adaption needs to maintain with that of his club, or the same situation could unfold for Mandzukic in Madrid. 


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