Atletico Madrid: more than just a solid unit
18th May 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
It was a goal of sheer, expressive beauty. More than simply a magnificent goal, it made us question what we thought we knew, the absolutes that we’d cemented in our minds, and the lines we’d drawn in defining what we had seen before.
As Saúl Ñíguez set off on his slaloming dribble that would culminate in the opening goal of Atlético Madrid’s Champions League semi-final, first leg tie against Bayern Munich, he defied what we had taken for granted about his team.
This Atléti team, built by Argentinian manager Diego Simeone, were a resolute unit, drilled to within an inch of their lives. They had gotten to where they are – both in terms of reaching the latter stages of this season’s Champions League, as well as, more broadly, their rise to being considered among the continent’s elite teams – by grinding out narrow victories.
Victories constructed on the foundation of a near impenetrable defence, against teams often filled with more flair, better technique and individual brilliance. Greater than the sum of its parts, this Atlético side is a living, breathing testament to what can be achieved through hard work and effective organisation. Just don’t expect it to be pretty.
After all, this is a team who bested FC Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-finals by ceding 77 percent possession in the second leg. Unconcerned by the Catalan side’s mastery of the ball, not frightened by the mesmerising skills of Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi and Neymar.
Content to protect their lot by pressing from midfield and, with the Uruguayan pairing of José Giménéz and Diego Godín in central defence, blocking everything that Barcelona could throw at them.
And it worked to great effect. Not least because Atléti’s astounding efficiency extends to their ruthlessness in front of goal: their 18.5 percent shot conversion rate in the Champions League this season (per TransferMarkt.com) is better than that of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester City – the other three semi-finalists.
There is no doubting that Simeone has shaped Los Rojiblancos in his own image: cantankerous and competitive, with a win-at-all-costs mentality. They are unashamed masters of the dark arts. But to fail to recognise the level of pure footballing ability within the squad, would be to do them a disservice.
For all of their defensive brilliance and cast-iron team ethic, there are plenty of players in red and white who’d walk into any team in the world, and more than hold their own when it comes to technical ability.
Jorge Resurrección Merodio, or Koke, as he is more commonly known, is one such player. A cultured passer, the 24-year-old Spain international has long been seen as the heir to Xavi’s throne with La Roja. Born in the Vallecas region of Madrid, Koke has risen through Atletico’s youth ranks to become an idol of the Vicente Calderón since making his first-team debut in 2009. Though by no means a prolific goal-scorer – Koke has scored just 20 times from 180 La Liga appearances – he is a master of the assist. He possesses a keen eye for a defence-splitting pass as well as all of the requisite technique to execute. With 14 assists in the league this season, Koke sits behind only Barça’s Messi and Suárez in the creativity stakes, who each have 16.
The standout star of this Atléti team is French forward Antoine Griezmann. Signed in 2014 for €30 million from Real Sociedad, where he was predominantly used as a winger, Griezmann has flourished as a central striker with Atlético.
Despite being a polar-opposite stylistically, Griezmann has filled the goal-scoring void left behind by Diego Costa’s departure for Chelsea two summers ago. Blessed with blistering pace and a wand of a left-foot, Griezmann has further rounded out his game by improving his heading ability and linking the play with the midfield and his strike partner.
An impressive debut season at the Calderón which saw the Frenchman net 25 goals in all competitions, has been bettered this term as the 25-year-old has broken the 30-goal barrier for the first time in his career.
Griezmann, who will be hoping to ride a wave of momentum into this summer’s European Championships in his homeland, has been in particularly hot form since the turn of the year. And the same can very much be said of his strike partner Fernando Torres.
Torres has rediscovered some of the old magic which made him a hero for Los Colchoneros as a teenager over a decade ago. The 32-year-old’s career had stagnated in England after a disappointing spell at Chelsea, and he showed no signs of improvement with AC Milan last season. Torres returned to the Vicente Calderón last summer on a season-long loan from the Italian giants in an attempt to get his career back on track. After scoring twice in September to put himself on 99 goals across his two spells with the club, a five-month goal drought followed.
With Torres misfiring, Atlético struggled to find a suitable partner for Griezmann. Expensive summer signings Jackson Martínez and Luciano Vietto were tried, but neither made their mark – the former was shipped off to Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande in January.
In February, Torres finally notched his one-hundredth Atlético goal, and with it he found the form that had deserted him for the best part of five years. Though not as quick as he used to be, Torres still has excellent timing of forward runs, and has rediscovered his finishing ability. He has struck up a good understanding with Griezmann as they are able to create space for one-another through intelligent movement.
In addition to the established stars, Atléti have a strong supporting cast of hungry, talented youngsters ready to make their mark.
Ángel Correa, the 21-year-old Argentinian signed from San Lorenzo in 2014, has played a key role when coming off the bench several times this season. The youngster, who is reminiscent of compatriot Carlos Tevez in both style and stature, has scored five goals after being introduced as a substitute, more than any other La Liga player during the current campaign.
Signed from Monaco for €20 million last summer, Belgian winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco is another exciting prospect for Atléti fans. The gifted 22-year-old has grown more comfortable in his surroundings as the season has worn on, and is set to play an even bigger role in the coming years.
At 21 years of age, Saúl Ñíguez is quite possibly the most complete young midfielder in Europe. Defensively responsible and an eminently talented passer of the ball, Saúl is the total package. Six-foot tall and of athletic build, the young Spaniard is no push-over in midfield. Saúl has yet to make his senior international debut, but if Spain boss Vicente del Bosque has any sense, he’ll be taking the young Atléti player to Euro 2016.
With a versatility that has seen him fill in at centre-back, in addition to playing across the midfield, Saúl is more than willing to put in the work to serve his team. But he is also capable of the sublime, as evidenced by the spectacular overhead kick he scored in last season’s 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid.
And in a Champions League semi-final that was dramatically characterised as football’s version of good versus evil – Guardiola’s free-flowing Bayern against Simeone’s ruthless Atlético – it was Saúl who provided the tie’s most outstanding moment of beauty.
Collecting the ball 40 yards from goal, Saúl turned and, realising he was short of passing options, decided to go it alone. Side-stepping and swerving past three Bayern defenders, he paused for a heartbeat before curling an inch-perfect left-footed shot beyond Manuel Neuer and into the bottom corner.
The fans inside the Vicente Calderón erupted with joy. The kind of joy that far exceeded the admiration they have of their team’s systematic mastery – this was the kind of pure joy that only comes from moments of magic like the one Saúl conjured. And in that moment, Atléti showed that, as well as being the best side in the world without the ball, they certainly know how to play when they have it.