For many Atletico Madrid fans, their club being seen as dysfunctional, chaotic and a long-running joke across town by Real Madrid will be forever etched in the memory. Even their remarkable, barely believable yet totally deserved La Liga title triumph two seasons ago has failed to totally banish the scars that many still carry. A sense of fatalism has never been far away, yet Diego Simeone’s sensational work in transforming the club has shifted the mood from pessimism to hope and now expectation. Now, as the primary clubs from the capital have been hit with long-term transfer bans, it is Atleti rather than Los Blancos, who look best primed to take the hit.
These sanctions have been rumoured for well over a year and have been persistent since Barcelona were first implicated in the illegal transfer of youth players back in 2014. At that time, Atleti were hitting their prime and just minutes away from adding the Champions League to their La Liga crown. Simeone had forged an unparalleled team spirit, a never-say-die attitude and unshakable belief that they could defy all the critics time and time again. He created a team in his image – mentally tough, not contemplating shirking any physical battles and imposing themselves on the game.
Yet, inevitably, the club’s financial position – whilst greatly improved in the past decade – was not on the same level to compete with the very top sides. The departure of Chelsea-bound trio Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois and Filipe Luis was a blow, but it did not signal a mass exodus. Simeone showed he was much more than just a motivator with his clever shift within his playing squad, investing in youth and players with greater flair, who were attainable financially. Antoine Griezmann was the standout signing in the aftermath, but the integration of a raft of young talent into the playing squad, while fading out the 2014 heroes, was managed superbly.
Miranda, Mario Suarez, Raul Garcia, David Villa and Adrian Gonzalz were all quietly moved on, while youth players returning from loan spells were given an opportunity at the highest level. Of the current Atletico side, nine are aged 22 or under. Four are products of the club’s youth system – which may not have the global prestige of La Masia or of those across the city, but which recently have more than held their own. Saul Niguez (21) and Thomas Partey (22) – two highly-talented central midfielders – both enjoyed successful loan spells at rival La Liga clubs, as did Oliver Torres (21), who excelled last year for Porto in both the Portuguese Liga and Champions League and provides healthy competition in the centre of the pitch.
Jose Maria Gimenez (20) has shown all the attributes to suggest he is the long-term successor to fellow Uruguayan Diego Godin at centre-half, and he could well form a formidable, central-defensive partnership with highly-rated Frenchman Lucas Hernandez (19) for many years to come. The gloriously-gifted Angel Correa (20) has earned many comparisons with Argentine compatriots Tevez and Aguero, such is his skill, low centre-of-gravity and natural ability.
In anticipation of the ban, Atleti acted promptly and decisively in this window. In came Celta Vigo captain Augusto Fernandez and he was joined by Matias Kranevitter (22), both of whom are midfielders involved with the Argentine national team. Their arrivals came due to Tiago Mendes’s leg break. The Portuguese is at the stage of his career where he will never become a major player for the side again, but these two introductions proactively solve this problem.
It sums up Simeone’s managerial career to date – continually being presented with obstacles and stumbling blocks and having to face adversity. Yet, he persistently overcomes these. Whether it be a massive financial imbalance among the top three sides in La Liga, a long-term mental block and defeatist attitude at the Vicente Calderon, the loss of key players both through transfers and injuries, and now this transfer ban, it’s what Cholo thrives on.
Atleti are serious players in the title race and in the Champions League. The grit and determination of 2014 remains, yet it is now complemented with greater potential and attacking threat. Any transfer ban will provide a platform for the plethora of young would-be-stars to show what they’re really made of. And what better man to guide them than Simeone?