Atletico Madrid were commended for their impressive defensive displays on route to their title win last season. Rather unfortunately, they have been unable to display that same resolve this time round, with the departure of Thibaut Courtios and Filipe Luis.
That puts increased responsibility on the side to score, something Antoine Griezmann and Mario Mandzukic have had little trouble doing this season. The summer arrivals have taken up the mantle of goal scoring left by Diego Costa and despite their different talents, managed to forge a fledgling partnership.
At €24m, Mandzukic seemed a sensible replacement for Chelsea-bound Costa. A forward with pedigree and international and Champions League experience, and a tall, physical striker much like the Spain international forward before him, the 28-year-old was Diego Simeone’s type of striker.
With 20 goals already under his belt, he has hit the ground running in his first season, and four goals and three assists in his last four matches confirms he is bang in form too.
His strike partner Griezmann endured a slow start to life at Vicente Calderon. The France international only managed one goal in 12 appearances as he was eased into the starting XI. Was he too expensive? Will he fit into the Atleti system? Questions were asked, but then the goals came.
Simeone must be given some credit. He saw the potential in the 23-year-old to be more than a winger, thrusting him further forward and more centrally, and his decision paid dividends.
Griezmann followed up a stunning hat-trick away at Athletic Bilbao with a brace against Levante. He had arrived. His tally for the season now stands at 17 goals, three off his total last season, which many would agree was pretty prolific. He was famed for his formidable partnership with Carlos Vela at Real Sociedad, but there was no guarantee that the same fireworks would go off when paired with Mandzukic.
The duo have different skill sets and differing styles of play, yet complement each other extremely well. Mandzukic is able to use his size and aerial prowess to hold up the ball and bring his partner into play, as was the case of Saturday, when he laid on two assists for Griezmann.
In contrast, Griezmann in turn is quick, skilful, and on recent evidence knows where the goal is, with six in his last six matches. The fact that the two linked up on numerous occasions in Atletico’s 3-0 win over Almeria is evidence that the two are not just working as separate entities, but deploying a joint assault on the rest of La Liga’s defences.
Despite the presence of new strikers Raul Jimenez, Alessio Cerci – since departed – and Fernando Torres, these two have established themselves as the de facto first choice.
The scary thing – for everyone else anyway – is that both Mandzukic and Griezmann are new signings. They have managed to form a functional and deadly partnership after half a season, one which looks likely to blossom more and better with time.