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Striker Role in Diego Simeone's Atletico Has Become Among Toughest in Football

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistJuly 28, 2016

TOSU, JAPAN - AUGUST 01: Luciano Vietto #23 of Atletico Madrid reacts after kicking the winning goal during  a penalty shoot out against Sagan Tosu F.C. during the friendly match between Atletico Madrid and Sagan Tosu F.C. at Tosu Stadium on August 1, 2015 in Tosu, Japan.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

He'd arrived for big money, and now he was going for big money, but those details weren't the most significant. Instead, this was a deal in which the when and the where mattered more, and in which the why mattered most. 

It was early February, and striker Jackson Martinez was off to China to join Guangzhou Evergrande. At Atletico Madrid, where he'd arrived from Porto as the man on whom Diego Simeone's latest title challenge would supposedly to be built, he'd lasted only six months and had scored just three goals, leaving behind intriguing questions.

Why hadn't it worked out?

Who was at fault?

What had happened?

"I am the first person responsible," said Simeone at a press conference days after the player's exit. "He did not get the chance to show us his best version. I feel part of that. It is my failure that Jackson did not play, but I am not going to change my way of playing."

Simeone then added: "We wish him luck. I hope he gets back to being the player we all thought he was."

From the Atletico boss, these were revealing and thought-provoking comments. As he spoke, he gave a sense of regret and frustration, lamenting a collective failure in which both potential and time were wasted.

Simultaneously, though, with a nod to his "way of playing," Simeone hinted at an acknowledgement that his own standards and success had perhaps given him a problem in this regard; that his ongoing striker search might continue to frustrate him because of his own expectations; that the demands of this particular position in his team have made it among the toughest in the game. 

The recent evidence suggests it might be, too. 

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 30:  Jackson Martinez of Atletico de Madrid looks on prior to the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on January 30, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Since Diego Costa's departure to Chelsea in 2014, Simeone and Atletico have consistently searched for players and combinations to fill the void, but in nearly every case, the Argentinian has been left unsatisfied.

And so here we are: Atletico are in the market for a prominent forward. Again. 

According to AS, the club wants to bring back Costa to fill his own hole. Sevilla's Kevin Gameiro is another option within touching distance, and if either man were to arrive, one or two others who are relatively new faces themselves will almost certainly depart, just as several have done before them. 

Two seasons ago, following the loss of Costa and amid a post-title restructure, Mario Mandzukic and Raul Jimenez were brought to the Vicente Calderon. Mandzukic possessed some of the attributes his manager demanded, but not others; Jimenez owned even fewer of them. 

Both are now gone. 

In the same season, Alessio Cerci was lured to the club from Torino. Like longtime servant Raul Garcia, the Italian was another option for a secondary striker role, albeit with a contrasting skill set. Right from the beginning, though, Cerci was a misfit, while Garcia gradually clashed stylistically with the direction in which Simeone wanted to take his team amid a period of evolution. 

Both are now gone. 

Atletico's response to such difficulties in 2014-15 was to go big last summer. Coming in, Jackson looked to be a neat fit for a Costa-sized hole, while the exciting Luciano Vietto was brought in from Villarreal. But now the Colombian is in China, and Vietto, after a season of stagnation in the capital, is close to a loan move to Sevilla, per Marca

In the background to all of this, other Atletico strikers have floated around Spain on loan, with Simeone seemingly unconvinced. After stops at Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Villarreal, Leo Baptistao has been moved on to Espanyol, while Borja Baston—whose fifth straight loan spell in 2015-16 netted him 19 goals at Eibar—is expected to make yet another temporary move this summer, per AS.

Few, it seems, can meet Simeone's demands in a position of the highest difficulty rating.    

The Bunch Who Haven't Satisfied Diego Simeone
PlayerAppearancesGoals
Mario Mandzukic4320
Luciano Vietto283
Jackson Martinez223
Raul Jimenez281
Leo Baptistao111
Alessio Cerci91
Transfermarkt

Under the Argentinian, forwards are required to work and graft in a way they rarely are elsewhere. 

In a system of resilience and defensive strength, those up front are tasked with providing the first line of protection. The initial requirement is to press and harass, to create turnovers and to close down passing angles. Then, as the team retreats, the emphasis shifts to plugging holes and to dropping into midfield to allow the wide men to press to the sidelines. 

Such movement has to be precise, of course. But it also must be perpetual, the intensity unwavering. And then when the ball is won, Simeone demands of his forwards explosion, aggression, direct running and a lethal edge.

It's some task. 

Across the last 18 months, Atleti's manager has got much of that from Antoine Griezmann, but even the supremely talented Frenchman initially acknowledged the difficulty of adapting to such a workload. 

"At first I struggled with 'El Cholo' because he was so different from what I experienced at La Real and France," he told Al Primer Toque (h/t Football Espana) in early 2015. "He works with a different mentality. He asks a lot of his players and demands a lot of intensity."

Griezmann's transformation has been the realisation of a Simeone vision, but the manager's problem is that he's yet to find the type he craves to play alongside him. 

In 2014-15, the excellent Mandzukic had the tenacity and work rate but not the dynamism, which forced Atleti into an uncomfortable middle-ground stylistically. "He [Mandzukic] annoys me easily, that's the reality," said Simeone to AS by season's end. 

Around him, the forceful Garcia was similar in terms of limitations; Jimenez possessed the raw athleticism but not that certain edge or technical proficiency; Cerci wasn't cut out for the physical assault; and returning on loan, prodigal son Fernando Torres just wasn't quite it despite the emotional connection. 

Atletico Madrid's Croatian forward Mario Mandzukic reacts during the UEFA Champions League Group A football match Club Atletico de Madrid vs Olympiakos FC at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid November 26, 2014.   AFP PHOTO/ GERARD JULIEN        (Phot
GERARD JULIEN/Getty Images

For forwards at the Vicente Calderon, it's combining all aspects of the multidimensional role that continues to prove so challenging, even for those who are considered elite upon arrival. 

Prolific in seasons prior, Jackson in 2015-16 was either incapable or unwilling to meet the exhausting expectations that Simeone holds. Vietto's vibrancy from his time at Villarreal was hit by the same demands—demands that aren't just a game-day thing; demands that extend to training, preparation and attention to detail; demands that extend to everything

Now, ahead of a new season, this is a point of genuine intrigue around Simeone. 

In the aftermath of his side's Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in Milan, the club icon hinted at a need for change through the questioning of his own future in front of the media. 

"Do I have to continue with Atletico or is it the end of a cycle?" he said. "I have to think about that."

Uttered at a time of heartache, the line was an emotional one but also seemed to convey a message: To go one step further, to topple Europe amid the tiny margins that separate success and failure at the game's summit, Atletico need more top-end talent and more firepower.

The club's activity in the transfer market thus far suggests it intends to give Simeone that, but questions linger: Is the workload placed on his forwards sustainable? Does the role need refinement? Does the Argentinian need to oversee evolution in the dynamic of his attack? 

This summer, Costa could return, or Gameiro could arrive. Immediately, Atleti would look stronger again, and yet there are no guarantees.  

Recent seasons have shown the striker position in Simeone's Atletico is among the toughest in football.

         

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