Atletico Madrid must reinvent themselves in transitional summer

Antoine Griezmann of Atletico de Madrid during the La Liga match between RCD Espanyol and Atletico de Madrid in RCD Stadium in Barcelona 04 of May of 2019, Spain. (Photo by Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Antoine Griezmann of Atletico de Madrid during the La Liga match between RCD Espanyol and Atletico de Madrid in RCD Stadium in Barcelona 04 of May of 2019, Spain. (Photo by Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images) /

Following the news from Euro News that stars Antoine Griezmann and Diego Godín will depart Atlético Madrid in the summer, the club must transition in order to remain relevant.

The Diego Simeone era at Atlético Madrid has been nothing short of historic. For a club that had been relegated from La Liga as recently as 2000 and languished in mid table until 2008, El Cholo’s Atleti side have won it all during his eight-year tenure with the notable exception of the elusive Champions League trophy.

The Argentine’s reign in Madrid culminated in a shock 2014 La Liga title win, the first such victory for Los Colchoneros since the 1995-96 season, while Simeone’s men also claimed a Copa del Rey, two Europa League titles, and two UEFA Super Cup wins. The only stain that continues to haunt this era of unprecedented domestic and continental success for Atleti are the two heartbreaking Champions League Final losses to arch rivals Real Madrid in 2014 and 2016.

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The club’s decline since reaching the 2016 final, while slow, has been clear across the last few seasons, as Atlético have had a diminishing role in the title race coupled with back-to-back Champions League failures. The club crashed out of the group stage last season, drawing twice against Azerbaijani minnows Qarabag before this season’s absolute capitulation in the round of 16 against Juventus.

The embarrassment in Turin has sparked a sort of exodus from the club, with stars such as Lucas Hernandez, Godín, and Griezmann all headed for the greener pastures of Europe’s elite clubs.

One of the key factors that has led to Atlético’s recent failures has been a serious identity crisis at the club. Atleti has grown massively from a financial standpoint, opening the world-class 67,000-seat Wanda Metropolitano which will play host to this season’s Champions League Final and breaking the club’s transfer record to sign World Cup winner Thomas Lemar for £63 million last summer.

On the other hand, Simeone’s playing style that has defined this era of success is predicated upon defensive stability and hard work when sitting deep, a style characteristic of smaller, lower-table sides. This style of play proved extremely effective during the early days of El Cholo’s time in Madrid, when he motivated perhaps lesser-talented players to fully commit and buy into the “Luchador” style in order for Atleti to punch above their weight.

In 2019, however, to be considered among the biggest clubs in Europe, teams must play an open, free-flowing, attacking brand of football in order to truly compete. With a squad now littered with the World Cup winners, big-money signings, and Ballon D’Or finalists characteristic of Europe’s super clubs, Simeone has unequivocally failed to adapt to managing top-level talent and egos.

The need to play defensively in order to win has been gone for some time now; Atleti have some of the world’s absolute best attacking talent that has been somewhat hamstrung by the style of play. While the club is in a much better place than it was five years ago, one almost would think that Simeone misses the days of a lower transfer budget in a smaller stadium where his side had to play like Burnley with better players.

That fateful night in Turin almost perfectly encapsulated the club’s stature in the modern game. Entering with a 2-0 aggregate lead in which they squandered chances to put the tie to bed in the home leg, they set up to simply waste 90 minutes in Italy with no intention of trying to score. And when they met elite competition, in this case, Cristiano Ronaldo, they were absolutely punished for it, easily conceding three over the course of the match to crash out in spectacular fashion.

Heading into next season, with their talisman and club captain heading for the exit, Atlético must make a decision. If they still are the small club of old, they will continue with Simeone and his defensive philosophy, try to paper over the cracks with new blood, and enter a cyclic pattern as a selling club in the years to come, not a destination.

The other choice is to recognize how much the club has grown and take a risk, much like Liverpool did with Jürgen Klopp, and build around a new manager’s vision of open, attack-minded football. While it will be painful to let go of the glory of the past, the reality of the situation is that Los Rojiblancos have all of the requisite ingredients to be a perennial contender both domestically and in Europe.

Perhaps Atlético is fine being the third horse in Spain and contending for the quarterfinals of the Champions League or Europa League titles, but in my opinion, without a change, that is their ceiling.

If Atético Madrid ever truly want to ascend to the pinnacle of European football, stake their claim as Madrid’s best team, and establish themselves as a destination club, they must adapt. If not, Champions League qualification could be in serious doubt as clubs such Sevilla and Valencia edge closer to catching Atleti.

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If everything goes right, however, and Los Colchoneros are reborn into the star-studded attacking side they possess the quality to be, there’s no reason to believe they can’t finally lift their most-coveted trophy that has so painfully eluded them: the Champions League.