COLUMN: Why Atletico Madrid need to remember their roots despite attacking flare

Any keen La Liga follower will already be aware Atletico Madrid have never been in a better position in the past five years. Despite winning the league with ex-Barcelona star Luis Suarez, the best football that Diego Simeone’s team has played has been in the past 365 days. While it is in great part due to the return of club legend Antoine Griezmann, there is no doubt that Simeone has been tailoring his approach to opponents much better than he used to in the past. After all, he’s been with the club for over ten years – a lot of things have changed. 

Veteran La Liga fans will remember the years of Jose Maria Gimenez and Diego Godin, who in their prime formed part of one of the best defensive partnerships in the history of modern football. The stereotype of Atletico Madrid being defensive lives on, impervious to the fact that it has been their biggest problem in recent years. Worryingly enough, it does not look like the club is worried about it. While Leicester defender Caglar Soyuncu joined the team last summer, he has barely featured. The closest Atletico have come to a deal this winter is Moise Kean, who is the exact opposite, a forward.

If there is one thing that will get in the way of this Atletico, it is precisely the lack of defensive care. Stefan Savic and Mario Hermoso have been great, but their shortage of defensive domination in one-on-one challenges has proved to be a source of concern for Los Rojiblancos. Meanwhile, Reinildo Mandava is off to AFCON, and back in Madrid, he is still yet to be eased back into the side, despite being fit for months now. This leaves Alex Witsel alone as the last rock at the heart of the Atletico backline. As great as the Belgian has been, one solid defender is just not enough, and the Madrid derbies proved it, as they conceded seven across two games and two extra times.

One wonders whether Atletico Madrid might not be led by masochists, with left-back Javi Galan set to leave on loan for Real Sociedad, who are looking to replace ACL-victim Aihen Munoz. Publicly their number one priority, midfielders have also been linked to the club, such as the young Arthur Vermeeren (18 years old), likely a long-term Koke Resurreccion replacement. The midfield might need more cover in the future – but with Pablo Barrios and Rodrigo De Paul, the club should be more than fine for the next years. Meanwhile, the persistent defensive issue keeps Atletico Madrid on the sidelines of the title fight — and it is concerning. 

It is true that the attacking partnership of Antoine Griezmann – arguably the most complete footballer in Spain and the world – and Alvaro Morata are remind of the Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan duo – but titles are won with defences, and it’s the clearly greatest issue in Atletico’s squad. It’s also an odd one, as less than ten years ago, this team was relentlessy bashed as over-defensive.

Times change quickly; and yet, it does not take major archeological research to find what Atletico is lacking. The market for defenders has never been richer, and seemingly, the club is not looking for them. The great Pep Guardiola himself had to invest millions in defence, signing the likes of Nathan Ake, and Manuel Akanji to finally win the Champions League with Manchester City. Simeone should be old enough to remember the years of Jose Mourinho, who was also a great partisan of defending first to win titles.  

The most attacking-minded coaches, like Jurgen Klopp with Liverpool, also eventually fixed his defence, originally building upon Virgil Van Dijk and later adding Ibrahima Konate to ensure stability at the back, despite Trent Alexander-Arnold not being the best defender in the world.

Adding a few defenders would not force Atletico Madrid to change its ways of attacking. In the last years, more and more defenders have become more and more involved in possession, whilst upgrading their athleticism, to the point where one-on-one battles races have reached insane heights. Prime examples being Barcelona with Ronald Araujo, or Antonio Rudiger with Real Madrid. Seemingly, all over Europe’s elite teams, defences have been built first – only Atleti are swimming against the tide. It has cost them several points this season, ultimately forcing them to the brink of the title race. 

There is no doubt that Atletico Madrid are doing well – they are a rising phoenix in Spain’s blue sky, one of the most-feared attacks in the country when Barcelona is still busy rebuilding and Real Madrid has yet not quite figured out who will succeed Karim Benzema. Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, have one of the healthiest patterns, and the best player of the country – Griezmann. And yet, upgrading the defence would be the final piece in the puzzle, taking them a level above most teams in Spain – and perhaps an unstoppable power.


Kai E. Iliev can be found on social media here, and if you’re hungry for more, his excellent work can be found on Medium too.

Tags Atletico Madrid Diego Simeone
La Liga - Club News