I’ll start off by coming clean: I’m a devoted Atlético Madrid supporter so I’m not willing to say Atléti have no chance at the title again this season. But I’m also a realist, and Atléti, while totally entertaining, have work to do if they’re going to once again reign as campiones.
It’s telling of both Atleti’s place in the table (currently fourth) and their relatively low goal count in matches, plus the expectations of the club compared to the Big Two of La Liga, that discussions around the title race often don’t even include last season’s champions. (Just this week was one such article here on Back Page Football concerning Atléti’s cross-town cousins.)
There are reasons for leaving Atlético Madrid out of the title discussion when you’re Real Madrid, but are they warranted?
The two-week international break provides both club and supporter with a moment to pause and consider the team’s strengths and weaknesses. The coaches particularly need this time, because Atléti entered the break on a loss that highlighted problems like a Hollywood movie premier spotlight. When the squad is tired, their defence shuts down.
We’ve seen glimmers of it before—the past few league matches against Cordoba and Getafe, not to mention the numerous problems against Real Sociedad, showed us a squad that gets complacent once the main job of goal lead is done.
It has been said that Atléti are off the mark in terms of where they were last year –last year Atléti had seven more points (30 then, 23 now) at this point in the campaign, but that’s irrelevant—or it should be in the grand scheme of things. It’s a new season and a different squad and while we may not see a title win this season, if there’s one thing Atlético Madrid have proven, it’s that they should not be underestimated.
The elephant in the room
You could say the Atlético Madrid of last season was almost inhuman in its success. It was a halcyon season and a powerhouse squad whose collective and individual success surprised you like a freight train from a tunnel.
Why, then, the sale of key players like Diego Costa and the purchase of players who, say, aren’t Diego Costa? The answer lies the ugly unmentionable: Atlético Madrid has an outrageous tax bill, currently at about £84m.
There are several reasons for the depth of this debt, all owing to activities undertaken in prior years, and the topic is contentious. Inevitably it brings arguments about not paying one’s bills (they stopped paying for two years after relegation in 2000), third-party ownership, and the exclusive revenue deals Barcelona and Real Madrid enjoy. To say none of that matters isn’t appropriate, and supporters have a responsibility to know the history.
Peter Staunton, in a Goal.com article, argued that while Atléti has begun to pay down its debt, its future is deeply uncertain. How long will it be before Atlético have to sell Koke in order to pay the bill? When will Simeone be tempted away by Argentina, Inter, or any given Premiership club for mounds of cash and glory, leaving Atlético Madrid to eke out a future with someone who doesn’t demand the most out of what it has?
Other financial questions loom. The Azerbaijan tourist board, now in its second year as kit sponsor, raises ethical questions as the country has human rights abuses. Are they the most appropriate sponsor? What about third party ownership, with which Atlético has a tricky relationship, having invited third-party investment funds to help pay for players? (A fund that is supported by investors from Azerbaijan, by the way).
UEFA (and FIFA worldwide) wants to ban third party ownership in order to prevent investors from controlling where players go. Koke is one of those players, and it is a conceivable worry in this supporter’s head that when someone offer a king’s ransom for him, the investors will insist he take it.
In an interview with Italian sports daily, La Gazzetta dello Sport, Simeone said:
I do not like to lie to people and one thing is clear: we cannot compete with Madrid and Barcelona. Our rivals are Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic, the goal is to finish third, we are a new team.
Mandzukic, Jimenez and Griezmann are different than Costa, Villa and Adrian. We’ve maintained the solid supporting structure, but we’re looking for the style which suits us best. We must have patience.
Atletico are the champions, but the players aren’t the same. We’re in a different league than Barcelona and Real Madrid. Even with spending €100m? Yes, because the expensive of signing players is a consequence of players being sold.
Because of the debt, Atlético must justify every euro it spends. After the summer departure of standouts like Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois, David Villa, and David de Gea to name a few, Simeone made shrewd signings in the form of Antione Griezman from Real Sociedad and Mario Mandzukic from Bayern Munich, both of whom are finding their form and arguably earning out their transfer costs.
But there are those that one could say haven’t proven their worth: Italian Alessio Cerci was a hotly anticipated striker, but hasn’t found his footing within the squad. To replace the phenomenal Courtois, Simeone brought in two keepers: Jan Oblak from Benfica and Angel Miguel Moya from Getafe.
No one was quite sure how the two would make up for the loss of Courtois. Oblak, who was named the best keeper in the Primeira Liga for the 2013-2014 season, was tapped as the natural number one keeper. But surprisingly, he hasn’t been seen all season. It’s been the unassuming Moya who has proven himself a worthy successor to Courtois, with AS reporting that Moya is on par with Courtois statistically.
Koke, of course, is everybody’s darling—he’s the new next greatest midfielder in Europe, he’s the next Xavi, he’s Barcelona’s pick (assuming they’re ever allowed to transfer again)—no wait, now he’s the target of a battle between Manchester City and Chelsea. Although what a player tells the press about staying with a club is never terribly reliable, Koke, who signed a new contract in June worth €60 million, said:
The truth is that part of me said it was difficult to say no to Barça, but I wanted to continue at home for many years at Atlético.
Making the most of the squad
It’s clear the first team is solid, if only by the fact that Simeone plays them with little rotation. Koke and Juanfran are in every lineup without fail; Miranda and Godin are also rarely absent unless injured. There have been concerns not only that the players don’t get rests but that the formation isn’t applied as effectively.
Although I loathe (or fear, perhaps) to question Simeone, many supporters feel that playing Koke in a deep 4-2-3-1 midfield rather than the Cholo System of 4-3-3 would be more appropriate to his skill set, but Koke told the press last week, “I like playing in both of our systems (4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3). I still have lots of progression but I play as a central midfielder here and I like it. I’m comfortable in two positions.”
His comfort is partly due to a solid communication system. Like a bee hive, Atléti teamwork is so finely tuned that when there is a communication breakdown, it is noticeable immediately, as with the last match against Sociedad.
Simeone reinforces the teamwork point every time he speaks to the media—and even when he doesn’t. In October, someone supposedly overheard Simeone giving the squad a right talking-to at training, yelling so loud it could be heard through closed doors. According to Inside Spanish Football, the source overheard him lay down the law this way:
To me, the line-up of the team is not important, you must remember that. The only thing that matters to me is Atlético Madrid as a whole. If someone is tired, you run for them.
Most of the squad has international duties. Indeed, the current international break has claimed the majority of players, leaving just five first-team players in training. Uruguay, Spain, Argentina, France, Portugal, Croatia, Turkey, Mexico, Slovenia, Brazil, and Italy were all the recipients of Atléti talent this week. It’s nice to have to so many players honoured this way, but the extra work wears them, and it highlights the fact that Atléti must carefully maintain the balance of non-EU players on the squad.
Miranda is a recent example of satisfying this requirement: he’s applied for, and reportedly near completion of, converting his Brazilian passport to a Spanish one as Diego Costa has done before him. This should annoy Brazil a bit less than Costa’s defection, however, as Miranda has competitive caps and can’t play for Spain, while Costa only played in Brazilian friendlies and therefore joined the Spanish national squad.
The best we can hope for is third?
Last year, Simeone told Spanish television station Cuatro that “The fans want to believe that Atlético Madrid can win La Liga and I don’t like that because if not, it would be seen as a failure. I don’t want to build up false expectations.”
This was patent silliness as surely he had the title expectation by January when those remarks were made, he must have sensed how special the season was. However, he also admitted: “No one is indispensable. What’s most important is the club. Atlético, as a club, has always survived.”
This is the party line, and it was echoed last week by Atlético Madrid CEO Miguel Ángel Gil Marín, who told the press in Mexico that “on-field success” has to be built over time. He said:
To reach the [Champions League] final, it exaggerates the club’s status outside of Spain. We beat four European champions last year: Chelsea, Barcelona, Porto and AC Milan. All of that has helped us to get to the level we are at now. The challenge of now improving is difficult but that is the beauty of the game. I talk about it with the manager, who has the same mentality as me – hungry to keep winning titles.
Last year’s title victory was a fluke, it’s been said—Atleti won by Costa’s goals and Courtois’ keeping, and the summer flux combined with reinforcements to Barcelona and Real Madrid suggest the chips have scattered differently for Los Rojiblancos this season. The Cup and the Champions League is all Atlético Madrid can expect, suggests Graham Hunter.
Expect is perhaps a stretch—to expect the title is not the Atléti way, but to hope…based on prior result, based on the talent and work of the squad, based on the coaching? Based on the solid performance this season?
Hope is solid.
Atlético have lost only two league matches so far and is at the top of its Champions League group. They fluctuate between third and fourth in the table, but don’t think for a moment that Atléti are content to lie there and take it. The likes of a Real Madrid supporter would expect immediate greatness, but Atlético Madrid aren’t Real Madrid and thank God for it.
There is much to look forward beyond this season: the club moves to the brand new Olympic Stadium in 2016, which will improve the financial outlook by increasing match-day sales from parking and corporate hospitality, and best of all, the move doesn’t cost the club. (According to CEO Gil, the move has “zero” net cost for the team because a Barcelona-based construction company is building the new stadium in return for acquiring the Vincente Calderon.) And Champions League successes will award the club cash it needs.
As I tell my Barcelona-supporting cousin, Real and Barca don’t need my support. I like a team who fights for what it wants, who applies itself, who disciplines itself. Who wants success because it’s hungry—not because it’s entitled.
That’s Atlético Madrid, and it’s got hope yet.