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Underdogs No More: Can Atletico's Overhaul Lead Them to Liga Glory?

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportJuly 11, 2019

B/R

Real Madrid generated a lot of noise by dropping more than €300 million in buying five new players early in the summer transfer window, including marquee signing Eden Hazard.

Less notice has been paid to city rivals Atletico Madrid's business in the market, even though it has been on a par. Already, Atletico have waded through more than half a billion euros in transfer fees when you consider players coming in and going out.

Gone out the door are players like Lucas Hernandez (€80 million, Bayern Munich), Rodri (€70 million, Manchester City) and, of course, the sale of Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona for a fee around his €120 million release clause is reportedly imminent.

In their place have arrived the likes of Marcos Llorente (€40 million, Real Madrid), Felipe (€20 million, Porto), Renan Lodi (€20 million, Athletico Paranaense) and the 19-year-old Joao Felix from Benfica for €127 million—the fourth-largest transfer in the history of football.  

For years, Atletico—who failed to win a Madrid derby from 1999 until 2013—laboured in the shadow of their Galactico-buying neighbours. Nearly every summer, Atletico had to offload their best players, including Sergio Aguero (2011), Radamel Falcao (2013) and Diego Costa (2014). Those days are no more. For example, from 2014 until 2018, Atletico spent €164 million more than Real Madrid in transfers.

Atletico's manager Diego Simeone—who reportedly earns €41 million a season—is said to be the best-paid football manager in the world. There's something hollow now about the idea that underpins Cholismo, the cult of the hungry underdog that has grown up around Simeone and the Atletico teams he has marshalled since taking over at the club in December 2011.

"Cholismo is a marketing concept—the idea that Atleti are a poor team: 'We're the team of the working-class people. We can't keep our big stars,' which is what happened with Rodri [who Manchester City bought by paying his release clause]," says Alfredo Relano, a columnist with Diario AS.

"But Atleti have also been making big signings, spending more than Real Madrid in recent history. The club could afford to pay Griezmann more last season than Cristiano Ronaldo earned in his final season at Real Madrid. Atletico is now one of the 10 richest clubs in Europe. They have to end this discourse of theirs.

Marcos Brindicci/Associated Press

"They have to justify their new, exalted position by playing more artistic football. Under Simeone, they used to have a team of fighters, who played very solidly in defence, who were difficult to break down. They weren't interested in playing creative football.

"The public now is expecting after the players that Atletico has signed—like Thomas Lemar and Joao Felix—that the team plays better, attacks more, plays less industrial football. It's logical. To change, though, will be difficult, but this notion that they are an impoverished team is indefensible." 

Simeone's team are at an interesting juncture. Inako Diaz-Guerra, a journalist with El Mundo, believes, however, that it is unfair to expect Simeone to radically alter his football philosophy, to discard his defensive style.

After all, he points out, the public has never compelled Pep Guardiola to convert his football faith to, say, a counter-attacking style. It would be whimsical to do so. The replacement of Rodri for the more physical, workmanlike Marcos Llorente is an interesting case in point. It suggests Simeone is reverting to type.

"Rodri is a better footballer than Llorente, but Llorente is a better footballer for Simeone's purposes," says Diaz-Guerra. "Rodri is a type of midfielder that doesn't suit Simeone anymore—a midfielder who plays very horizontally, who doesn't lose possession, who physically isn't big.

Rodri has swapped Atletico for Manchester City
Rodri has swapped Atletico for Manchester CityLINDSEY PARNABY/Getty Images

"He will suit Guardiola well. He's fantastic at taking up the right position with the ball, but when he was at Atletico, there was an obvious clash. He didn't fit. Llorente is a player with less natural talent, but he's better in physical aspects. He is stronger than Rodri. You can see that Atleti is trying to recuperate some of its traditional muscular essence. 

"Simeone and Guardiola have their different styles. You could ask them to evolve, to change elements, but you couldn't really ask them to change themselves. They're wedded to their philosophies. Atletico will never play possession-based football, and attack in a classical style, because their trainer doesn't believe in this way to interpret football.

"In the same way, Guardiola will never play counter-attacking football. Nobody ever asks Guardiola to do so, but it seems like when it comes to Simeone, there's some kind of campaign: 'Hey, change your style.' Simeone won't change. It's like asking a rock musician to play jazz." 

One of Atletico's challenges for next season will be in trying to absorb the likely loss of four key defenders: Lucas, ex-captain Diego Godin, Juanfran and, it seems, Filipe Luis, whose contract expired at the end of the season.

The latter three are all well into their 30s, so there is an inevitability about their departures. The defection of Lucas to the Bundesliga is a bitterer pill to swallow for Atleti fans.

"The loss of Lucas is irritating because he's young and he could have been the basis of their defence for years to come," says Relano. "Godin and Filipe are at the end of their careers. It's a good moment for them to leave. My impression is that within the club they would like to have avoided the departure of Lucas if possible."

Simeone has always had more success in assimilating defenders into his system than attackers, which augurs well for his new defensive recruits, Felipe and Renan Lodi.

When Miranda left for Inter Milan in 2015, for example, Jose Maria Gimenez stepped into his shoes without any fuss.

"It's harder to replace Griezmann than it is Lucas or Godin," says Diaz-Guerra.

Hector Herrera, who was picked up as a free agent from Porto, is perfect for Simeone—a feisty midfield warrior. 

Hector Herrera looks like a typical Simeone player
Hector Herrera looks like a typical Simeone playerGABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images

"Hector Herrera is a typical Simeone profile player," says Diaz-Guerra. "After a few years trying to buy stars, Atletico found out that they haven't renewed this type of player—a middle-class footballer like, say, Raul Garcia or Gabi, players who made the team very competitive, less talented than a Joao Felix, Lemar or Griezmann, but players who are hard, competitive and extremely reliable.

"He's perfect for Simeone's squad. I don't know how many games he will play because Atletico have Saul, Koke and Llorente in midfield, but he's a joker in the pack. The kind of player Simeone was missing last season."

Costa has always been Atletico's greatest joker during the Simeone era, something that fans were reminded of when a short, comical video of him "air fishing" was released during the first few days of Atletico's pre-season training by his team-mate Stefan Savic. Costa—back from his summer vacation in Brazil—is looking lean.

"Diego Costa has arrived, apparently, in very good physical condition for preseason training," says Fran Guillen, author of Diego Costa: The Art of War.

"It's strange because this had always been one of his weaknesses: his holidays in Brazil and his mother's cooking, which used to cause Diego to arrive back overweight. Maybe he won't repeat his goalscoring feats of the 2013-2014 season, when he scored 27 league goals to help Atletico win the title, but I still think he is a very important striker for Atleti, and I think this season he will improve a lot from last season."

When it comes to firepower, Atleti will also be looking to Felix. A lot of expectation will rest on his young, slim shoulders.

"His qualities are excellent," says Relano. "A lot of coaches are saying that Joao Felix and Mbappe will be the world's best footballers in the near future. What I've seen so far is very impressive, but I've the same doubts that everyone has—he's very young. He's only played a single season in the first division. The club has paid a lot of money for him. It's a heavy burden he'll have to carry with him."

Atletico have taken a calculated risk with him. It's the only way the club can hope to compete against their great rivals in Spain—Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Diaz-Guerra draws a comparison with the bold move the club made to buy Sergio Aguero from Independiente for €23 million in May 2006 when he was only a 17-year-old. And look at the player Aguero became.

"The arrival of Joao Felix brings a smile to Atletico fans' faces, obviously," says Diaz-Guerra. "The only way for Atleti to get a world-class player is to sign him just before he matures, like they did with Griezmann and Aguero."

The case of Joao Felix is notable because they are signing him for a price that is completely exorbitant. It was the same manoeuvre Atletico made with Aguero. To grow, Atleti have to take these risks and, of course, it's a big risk. Atleti make this kind of move about every five years. It's not like with Barca or Real Madrid—that if they fail with one player, next year they can try with another one."

It's captured the imagination of the football world. Atletico's future is in the balance. With so many changes in the squad, it suggests they face a season in transition. Or if Felix catches fire, who knows?

"Every time Simeone has tried to tweak his way of playing, the team has lost its way," says Guillen. "I think Simeone is closer to a back-to-basics style with the new players he has signed and his team will be mentally fresher and excited [with this squad overhaul].

"Without the signing of Joao Felix, perhaps the view that the club was facing a year of transition could have made sense, but after that huge investment, the goal of Atletico must be to compete again—to make life difficult for Real Madrid and Barcelona."

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