On May 19th, Atletico Madrid called a press conference to announce the contract renewals of two cornerstones of their team, 35 year-old Tiago Mendes and 21 year old Saul Niguez. Atlei are renowned for their ‘in your face’ ferocious style of play, but their on the pitch success would not have been possible if the same aggression was not shown by their Board.
The fact that Atletico have one of the best young squads in all of Europe is not La Liga’s best-kept secret, and, despite their youth, they have still managed to run perennial giants FC Barcelona and Real Madrid right down to the last game day for the league title and they also repeated their 2014 performance by booking a ticket to Milan for the Champions League final season.
These accomplishments are eerily similar to the achievements of Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in 2013 with the main difference between the two clubs being Dortmund’s well-documented inability to hold onto its stars and fulfill its potential as a superclub.
Over the years, the big three: Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have always had the most pulling power and only a few clubs have threatened to break into this elite bracket with no one really sustaining a prolonged effort — until Atletico that is.
Even with the mass riches at Manchester City’s or Paris Saint Germain’s disposal, none can match the trophy haul that the proverbial ‘underdogs’ from Madrid can boast of: 2 Europa league trophies, 1 La Liga title, and 2 Champions League final appearances prove that their success is not a flash in the pan.
By constantly challenging the Spanish giants domestically for silverware and beating other European elites time after time in the Champions league, suffice it to say that there is now a quartet of super clubs. So if Atletico Madrid can do it, then why not Dortmund?
The Griezmann Signing
For many football enthusiasts, the arrival of Antoine Griezmann from Real Sociedad for a fee of €35 million is seen as the sign of the change in power in Spain. Usually, the best young talents follow their breakout season move to the biggest clubs in the league like the transfers of Paolo Dybala from Palermo to Juventus or Layvin Kurzawa from AS Monaco to PSG last summer.
But the fact that La Liga’s then-brightest attacking prospect decided to move to Atletico Madrid was a statement of intent from the club. After losing crucial players like Diego Costa and Arda Turan, Atleti have shown willingness to spend aggressively, bringing in the best talent to the Vincente Calderon stadium.
However, another reason that Atletico has won more trophies than Dortmund in the past couple of years could be attributed to their different playing style. While Dortmund played a gegen-pressing system under Klopp and a similar hyper-attacking style under Thomas Tuchel, Atletico have focused on the other side of the pitch, emphasizing the importance of preventing opponents scoring opportunities.
It is no wonder Atletico have one of the best defences in the top 5 leagues considering the plethora of defensive stalwarts in their ranks such as Diego Godin, Filipe Luis, Jose Maria Gimenez, and Lucas Hernandez, it is easy to see why. While fluid, attacking football is beautiful to see and can win over neutrals, Atletico’s defensive fortress seems to deliver more consistent results.
Take for example each team’s transition season. Although Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund had their ‘blip’ seasons during the 2014-2015 campaign, Dortmund, who had just lost Robert Lewandowski, flirted with relegation during the first half of the season and only managed a 7th place finish while Atletico, who also lost Diego Costa, finished 3rd in La Liga.
However, this season, Atletico’s dogged defending has allowed them to beat 2 of the best teams in all of Europe in Barcelona and Bayern in the Champions League, while Dortmund’s frail defence crumbled after going up 4-2 only to lose 5-4 in less than 30 minutes against Liverpool to exit the Europa league in the quarter-finals.
Why This Summer Matters
A few years in the not so distant past, Borussia Dortmund had carried the torch for the ‘smaller’ teams in Europe, proving that you didn’t need huge budgets to play among the best. However, Atletico Madrid has picked up the torch and they don’t look like stopping, which is why this summer will be so decisive, not only to strengthen for the challenges of next season but to send a sign of intent to the footballing world.
The signing of Ousmane Dembele, Ligue 1’s young player of the year, and Mikel Merino, Spain’s U-19 international, are certainly steps in the right direction. But for all the sexy football that we will undoubtedly see from Thomas Tuchel’s men next season, he will have to keep a certain phrase in mind if he wants to take a page from Atletico’s book: offense wins admirers, defence wins championships.
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