In the last 14 seasons, only Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid has beaten both Real Madrid and Barcelona to the La Liga title. Since then, they’ve finished 16, 3, 15 and 14 points adrift of the Champions but they can reclaim the throne in 2018/19 and we explore the reasons why it’s a possibility.
For a club aiming to reach the pinnacle of European football, patience and perseverance are two crucial traits. They will stumble on their road to success, they will endure heartbreaking losses and they will have to make peace with their best players leaving for greener pastures. However, the most difficult paths often lead to the most beautiful destinations.
If any club epitomizes the abovementioned statements, then that’s Atletico Madrid. They started the 21st century in the Spanish second division, they lost their superstars year in year out and they even lost two Champions League finals in a heartbreaking manner to their archrivals. However, Atletico Madrid has slowly and steadily become a force to reckon with and the Diego Simeone has played a huge role in this change of fortunes.
The 2018/19 season will be Atletico Madrid’s eighth season under Simeone and in the previous seven seasons, the club has enjoyed unprecedented success. With Simeone at the helm, Atletico’s most notable achievement is beating the odds to win the La Liga in 2013/14. Now, through efforts of their own and otherwise, the stage is set for them to reclaim the league title.
A summer like no other
Atletico Madrid’s success has often come at a cost and the cost is losing their best players. For instance, two of the Premier League’s best players, Sergio Aguero and David de Gea are former Atletico Madrid players. Even two of Atletico Madrid’s current stars, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis, moved to Chelsea before returning to Atletico Madrid.
However, this summer was different. One of the major transfer stories of the summer was the future of Antoine Griezmann and the Frenchman was heavily linked with a move to rivals Barcelona. It seemed like Atletico were braced for the exit of yet another key first team player but Griezmann quashed all rumours and instead, flamboyantly announced his contract extension with Atletico.
Mi afición, mi equipo, MI CASA! @atleti 🔴⚪🔴
Mes supporters, mon équipe, MA MAISON ! @AtletiFR 🔴⚪🔴
— Antoine Griezmann (@AntoGriezmann) June 14, 2018
Other in-demand first-team players such as Lucas Hernandez and Jose Maria Gimenez also signed new contracts in the summer while they retained the services of Diego Godin and Jan Oblak amidst strong interest from Manchester United and Liverpool respectively.
In addition to retaining their best players, their summer transfer business was impeccable. They replaced their veteran captain Gabi with one of Spain’s most promising young midfielders Rodri. Their squad lacked natural wide players with pace as well and that was addressed with the arrival of Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins.
— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) July 13, 2018
The result of an excellent summer is arguably the best Atletico Madrid side in recent history.
Rivals in a rut
Even if Atletico Madrid perform to the best of their abilities, to win the league title, they will need their rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona to slip up and drop points unexpectedly. The current situation at Real Madrid and Barcelona will definitely aid Atletico Madrid in that aspect.
For Barcelona, the departure of Andres Iniesta and concerns over the pragmatic approach of Ernesto Valverde are the major reasons of concerns this season.
The Catalan club previously showed difficulty in coping with the departure of an influential first-team player when Carles Puyol and then Xavi Hernandez left the club. Most Barcelona fans would concur if you state that Puyol and Xavi were never truly replaced. The departure of Andres Iniesta in the summer leaves a similar gaping hold in the Barcelona team and one that won’t be easily filled.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) May 20, 2018
The other concern for Barcelona is the direction in which the club is moving under Valverde. Barcelona’s playing style under Valverde was a far cry from the free-flowing football Barcelona fans were spoilt with in recent years but it yielded them a domestic double last time around.
This season, Valverde switched from the 4-4-2 system that worked for him to a more attacking 4-3-3 to use offensive players like Ousmane Dembele but the results haven’t been convincing. Barcelona are without a win in their last three La Liga games with two of those games ending in a draw at home to Girona and Athletic Bilbao and the third a defeat to bottom-placed Leganes.
Malcom not called up again, Alena ignored. Valverde has to go.
— Rafael Hernández (@RafaelH117) October 1, 2018
Reverting to the 4-4-2 system with four midfielders might give some respite to Valverde in terms of results in the league at least but the system was exposed in Europe last season when teams used high-energy pressing and runners behind Barcelona’s four-man midfield or simply bombarded them with long balls over the top. In addition, a certain Luis Suarez has performed like a shadow of his former self in this formation.
While Valverde sorts out the system and personnel he wants to use, Barcelona are bound to drop more points in the league. To compound his problems, Samuel Umtiti is out of action for several months with a knee injury.
As for Real Madrid, they are going through a period of transition and a huge one at that. There were two departures from the Los Blancos squad in the summer and both sent shockwaves in the football world.
Five days after Real Madrid clinched their third consecutive Champions League title, Zinedine Zidane stepped down as manager after being in charge of the club for only two and a half seasons. He cited the club’s “need for a change” as a reason behind his decision.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 31, 2018
Around a month after Zidane’s departure, a bigger shock awaited Real Madrid fans as Cristiano Ronaldo transferred to Juventus after a nine-year stint in the Spanish capital. In nine seasons, Ronaldo became the club’s all-time leading goalscorer with 450 goals in 438 and was also the club’s leading goalscorer in his last eight seasons by a significant margin.
— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) July 16, 2018
Real Madrid had to find a replacement for Zidane and Julen Lopetegui was given the honour. However, the club opted against finding a direct replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo. This puts more pressure on the likes of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio to find the back of the net.
Lopetegui’s stint as Real Madrid manager started with a 4-2 defeat to Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup. His side gathered wind in their sails from there on but a recent 3-0 defeat to Sevilla followed by a 0-0 draw with Atletico Madrid at the Bernabeu has fans already questioning the team’s temperament in big games.
The period of uncertainty that’s going on at Barcelona and Real Madrid should give a much-needed boost for Atletico Madrid in the La Liga title race.
The Diego Simeone effect
Atletico Madrid fans don’t have any of the concerns of their rival fans. They have a manager who has instilled a winning mentality into the side and found success with his conservative approach.
In addition, the strike force of Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa is arguably the best Simeone has ever had at the club. They only played together in the second half of last season and we may not have seen their best yet.
Costa was without match practice in the first half of last season nor did he have a full preseason with Atletico Madrid. Griezmann, on the other hand, is coming back after winning the World Cup. They’ve already shown glimpses of their brilliant linkup play and that will only get better as the season progresses.
Seven games into the current league season, Atletico Madrid are fourth in the table and two points behind the leaders Barcelona. However, they’ve already played Valencia, Celta Vigo and Real Madrid in away fixtures.
There are enough reasons to believe that this is Atletico Madrid’s league title for the taking but only time will tell if that is going to be the case.