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July 10, 2019

A look at the Atletico Madrid rebuild

By Kiyan Sobhani
Image Courtesy of Press Association
Atletico Madrid forward Joao Felix

On May 14th, Antoine Griezmann announced publicly that he was leaving Atletico Madrid. He’s still lingering on the books as Atletico and Barcelona publicly air out a bizarre, tense negotiation process, but at the time of Griezmann’s announcement, the club faced a serious question: How do we rebuild this team?

Griezmann was their best player, one of the few on earth who can turn a game on its head and carry a team. His role during his entire Atletico tenure was to lug an offensive scheme that rarely dared to enter the final third or score more than one goal per game. Griezmann, a key cog who orchestrated so much for France in the World Cup, was reduced to slowing down counters and recycling possession on so many occasions.

Atletico lost their main creator, but have also lost so much of their core. Diego Godin has moved to Inter Milan. Filipe Luis and Juanfran are leaving the club. Lucas Hernandez, a breakout young defender and one of the league’s best, has left for Bayern Munich. He was the man that could’ve eased the transition. Rodri Hernandez, the most valuable defensive midfielder in Spain, was sold to Manchester City — a team that suits his playing style much more. Rodri, like Griezmann, will thrive in an environment where he sees more of the ball.

Only Koke, Saul, Tomas Partey, Stefan Savic, Jan Oblak, and Jose Gimenez remain from that Atletico squad that took to the field in the 2016 Champions League final against Real Madrid in Milan.

Nearly two months after Griezmann’s announcement, Atletico answered the call by spending just over £176m on four players: Joao Felix, Marcos Llorente, Felipe, and Renan Lodi. Hector Herrera was nabbed from Porto for free, too.

They took an unprecedented gamble on Felix — spending more money on him than any club in history (apart from Paris Saint-Germain) has ever spent on a player. Felix, as promising as he is, has just a one-year sample size at the top level. However, that small sample size is a very impressive one.

Felix is not a Griezmann carbon copy, but has tremendous upside as a 19-year-old who thrives behind the main striker, is comfortable creating from deep, composed in tight spaces, and is a quick incisive passer and cool finisher — all traits Simeone needed Griezmann for.

A lot will be asked of the teenager by Simeone, and it will be interesting to see how his physical profile endures an entire season of defensive work. The Portuguese is not an athletic freak — he often is taken out of the game in the second half due to his low stamina. Defensively, we’ve yet to see him in a low block like Atleti’s.

But, in a vacuum, Felix is an interesting replacement for Griezmann, and despite Atleti spending £113m on him, they will be well on course to have a £100m+ net positive for the summer once they sell Griezmann officially. Atleti needed to move the needle somehow during this rebuild, and not many other stars would’ve been at their disposal with Felix’s specific skill-set. This Atleti team has come too far and come too close to fall into irrelevancy again. With Simeone — the man who defines this era — still around, they will always try to be competing at an elite level.

It won’t be easy, particularly with the squad still needing work. Atletico fans can at least be optimistic about one thing: Simeone tends to have his team at an elite defensive level regardless of who plays. Last season, it was a guessing game as to who would be available at the back. Lucas Hernandez missed 26 games due to injury; Jose Gimenez missed 19; Stefan Savic missed 18; Filipe Luis missed 13; Diego Godin missed 10; and Juanfran missed 9. Simeone’s defense was a mish-mash of whoever was humanly able to walk, and rarely did he have his preferred quartet. Still, Atleti had the best defensive record in La Liga, and lowest expected goals against of any team in Spain. When all else fails, Jan Oblak goes into alien mode and masks defensive cracks. This solidity will give the rest of the team a base to work from.

How all of the new signings will integrate into the reinvention of Atletico will be fascinating. Marcos Llorente, like his predecessor Rodri, plays his best as a single anchor where he can read passing lanes and start counters. But Simeone never gave Rodri the gift of playing that role, and rarely deviated from his 4-4-2 where he unapologetically arranged a midfield of four central midfielders. He also never gave Rodri, a deft passer, a possession-based scheme that took advantage of his vertical artistry. Still, Rodri’s numbers across the board were impressive, and it will be exciting to see what he can accomplish under Pep, in a blueprint where players zip around without the ball and provide outlets for long-range passes. City will make life easy for him.

Llorente, a player less adept than Rodri with the ball at his feet, is among the best readers of the game at his position in Spain, as he showed in his breakout year at Alaves in 2016/17. He continued this under Santiago Solari this season, albeit in a small sample size, surprising and impressing with his vertical passing, dribbling, and shooting.

When you lose Rodri — the most promising defensive midfielder in Spain and possible heir to Sergio Busquets — flipping him to another league for £63m and replacing him with someone like Llorente for £27m is about as good as you can do. Llorente, a close friend of several Atletico players, is still only 24, and midfielders often don’t peak until they’re in their late 20s. Atletico have salvaged the situation well.

Atletico’s biggest concern has still not been addressed: Goals. If no other striker arrives, they will be hoping Alvaro Morata takes a big leap this season. Morata looked good in Madrid last season during his loan spell — finally looking at home and in a comfortable environment. That form needs to continue, and even improve. But that’s asking a lot of a striker who’s never been prolific. Morata is now 26, and has scored more than 12 goals in a season just once.

Atletico’s goal-scoring woes go beyond taking chances too, they are deep and systemic. This team doesn’t create at a high clip, even with Griezmann around. Their chances were worth just over 39 expected goals last season by StatsBomb’s figures, a mark that was only 11th-best in the league, and a galactic 24 expected goals behind Barcelona.

Simeone has tried to play more offensively in the past. In the 2016/17 season, following another Champions League final heartache against Real Madrid, he had his team playing higher up the pitch. It worked for a good stretch, but Simeone has struggled finding a balance since then, and his team hasn’t quite looked like their elite selves for a couple seasons now. Atletico haven’t been able to find consistent help for Griezmann. Any of the creators they’ve signed to help him — Thomas Lemar, Gelson Martins, Vitolo — have not panned out. Angel Correa has had patches of brilliance but isn’t consistent. Yannick Carrasco was a headache to deal with, but they do miss the danger he created on the flank.

Joao Felix would have been an interesting pairing alongside Griezmann to form a tasty transition offense — but that window is likely gone now. Instead, Felix will have a heavy burden on himself, whether it’s fair or not. Fans will find it difficult to turn away from his price tag. If Felix’s small sample size is misleading, then there’s no way to flip him and make your money back — that’s a sunk cost. But if Atletico are willing to be patient with him, they should be excited about his ability and upside. In a vacuum, Felix fits a lot of needs, even if we are still likely several years away from his peak.

This will be a difficult transition period for Atleti, but one that’s not as bad as it initially seemed. They are still a top-three team in Spain with the current roster, and tons of room for future growth. Circle that home game against Barcelona in December — the Wanda will be raucous as they welcome back Griezmann.

Article by Kiyan Sobhani