Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid have gone from La Liga makeweights to challengers on all fronts in a matter of years, with the latest summer activity an indication of not only their spending power, but also their capacity to regularly win titles and attract high-quality signings.
That's not to say that the team has been put together by spending power and simply buying in big names though; far from it in fact. Simeone has moulded a squad that fits into his tactical demands and has gotten the very best out of players who, four or five years ago, would have been seen as also-rans in La Liga—or else those who never quite fulfilled what was expected of them until that point.
Juanfran and Raul Garcia are examples of players who have thrived under Simeone's approach, but perhaps most of all it was club captain Gabi who benefited. Since skippering Atleti to the Liga title and Champions League final, though, he hasn't quite managed to retain the same level—and that makes him one of the few frustrating figures left at Atletico Madrid, certainly since Alessio Cerci's one-man circus left town.
Sitting at the heart of Atleti's four-man midfield, Gabi was, or perhaps still is, a total player who could do everything required of him by Simeone. A ball-winner, a fantastic distributor and a combative, industrious engine to cover the entire length of the field, Gabi meted out justice on the opposition. He also initiated Atleti's own passages of play in equal measure during the hugely successful 2013-14 season.
Set pieces, through passes, incisive balls to set away the wider attackers: Gabi was capable of it all, whether in the final third or from much, much deeper.
His heart and selflessness also made him a fantastically protective barrier for Godin and Miranda in the centre of Atleti's defence, a perfect all-round midfielder for a team who inevitably made sure they didn't lose the match first, before then going on and winning it.
In the second half of the 13-14 campaign, the only minutes Gabi didn't play in either La Liga or Champions League were due to suspension—he wasn't subbed off or left out of the XI on a single occasion, such was his importance to the team.
While it's fair to suggest that it would be difficult for the Madrid-born midfielder to sustain such high levels with total consistency, it also has to be acknowledged that last campaign saw him in relatively poor form, not just not-quite-as-good.
His passing range and confidence in finding those difficult passes in the final third all but disappeared over the year. This can be attributed to not having the searching, driving runs of Diego Costa to seek out. Mario Mandzukic was a different type of target to hit and Antoine Griezmann took a few months to get going as a striker, but that doesn't explain Gabi's inability to control the game as much as he did previously. The all-action style was still present but at times appeared laboured and perhaps simply lacking self-belief.
Koke and Tiago were undeniably the two more important midfielders for Atletico, and that was exemplified when either were absent, especially when in possession.
Far from being indispensable and the must-have man on the pitch, Gabi was subbed 13 times in La Liga last year and left out entirely for the Champions League second leg against Bayer Leverkusen—before only coming on at half-time against Real Madrid in the quarter-final second leg as well.
In '15-16, he simply wasn't able to keep up with the progression of the team, the expectation of him or the challenge of the opposition.
Resurrection or Dispensable?
And that's what makes Gabi frustrating: He has already proven he has the capacity to dominate the best midfields around and did it extensively to lead his side to the title. Such a short time afterward, for him to be suffering a drop-off in form to the extent that he could conceivably be replaced altogether in the starting XI this season, must be frustrating for himself as much as the support base and coaching staff.
Atleti don't lack for alternatives. As well as Koke and Tiago, there is Saul Niguez, Thomas and speculation over Thiago Motta joining shortly, as noted by L'Equipe (h/t the Press Association, via ESPN). Josuha Guilavogui is still Atleti's player too, out on loan at Wolfsburg.
With the start of the season drawing closer and Atleti having invested sufficiently to think they can compete for the league title again, Simeone will quickly have to make a decision over his captain.
As a leader, an organiser and a trusted lieutenant, Simeone couldn't ask for more than Gabi gives. But at the top level, the mental and technical traits have to be absolutely on-point as well, and the midfielder lost out there in a big way last season. Now aged 32, he needs to pick up again and show he has more than one truly top-class season to give Atleti—or else face a gradual, but likely, erosion of influence from the first-team scene.
And considering what he has achieved, what he is capable of and where the team could yet go, that will make Gabi himself the most frustrated of all.