Atletico Madrid 2021-22: Upheaval at rivals offers chance to establish LaLiga dynasty

By Sports Desk August 11, 2021

Opportunism was the name of the game for Atletico Madrid in 2020-21 and, ultimately, it led them all the way to the title.

First, they pounced on the opportunity to sign Luis Suarez, then Diego Simeone's squad enjoyed a commanding start to the season that left their rivals playing catch-up.

Lionel Messi's situation at Barcelona contributed to the Blaugrana being slow out of the blocks, and although Atletico almost contrived to throw it all away in the latter stages of the season, they proved their resilience in seeing it out.

While opportunism led to success then, this season Atletico arguably find themselves on the cusp of a new, dominant era. Barca are in an even greater mess than 12 months ago and no longer have Messi to bail them out, while Madrid's only major signing has been David Alaba – in contrast, they have lost Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane is Manchester bound too. Add Zinedine Zidane's departure to that and it is very much a picture of transition at the newly refurbed Santiago Bernabeu.

Atletico, meanwhile, have not lost any key players and have even improved their midfield options with the signing of Rodrigo De Paul. It was not so long ago that Simeone's future seemed uncertain, but the past year has brought out a new side in him and that's helped Los Colchoneros reign in Spain.

Flexible Simeone turns over a new leaf

Throughout Simeone's time in charge of Atletico, there has been a common theme – you can either call it consistency or inflexibility, but it essentially depends on whether you are a critic or a fan.

However, it is difficult to say he was inflexible last season by any stretch of the imagination. Now, whether that was decisive in their title triumph is impossible to say, yet it does show Simeone is perhaps not the one-trick pony some insist he is.

For much of his decade at the helm, Simeone has almost religiously set his teams up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation, or at least something not too dissimilar. A back four has been the cornerstone of his systems. According to Opta data, he only ever started a match with a back three or five six times before 2020-21.

Yet, in the championship-winning campaign, Atletico lined up with a back three or five in 23 of their 38 LaLiga matches. Simeone had amassed a group of players with wide-ranging skillsets that aided versatility, and he truly embraced that.

Yannick Carrasco's work-rate saw him turned into a wing-back; Kieran Trippier's arguably suspect defensive capabilities became less of a concern because he was stationed further up the pitch. In attack, Luis Suarez and whoever partnered him – usually Joao Felix or Angel Correa – offered unpredictable movement that often saw them push out wide to create space for Marcos Llorente to run into.

 

Of course, that didn't occur all the time, but it is notable how all 12 of Llorente's goals came from either positions in the box or central positions just outside the area despite a lot of his work coming down the right flank in tandem with Trippier.

This flexibility in the final third also seemed to contribute to their effectiveness off the ball. Their 43 shot-ending high turnovers was bettered by only Barcelona and Eibar, though that figure equated to 15.3 per cent of their total high turnovers (281).

That percentage was better than both of those teams above them in the category, suggesting Atletico were more effective at turning those situations into danger, despite their PPDA of 11.5 only being the 12th lowest in the league.

But the overriding feeling looking back at Atletico in 2020-21 was the only real ammunition Simeone's critics had – that he was inflexible – seems to have lost relevance.

 

De Paul is Simeone's ideal schemer

It was only a matter of time before De Paul sought a new home after an excellent five-year spell in Italy with Udinese. It was there that he got his career back on track after struggling to make much of an impact with Valencia during his previous attempt to succeed in Spain.

He was a regular throughout his five years in Serie A but enjoyed his finest campaign of all in 2020-21, displaying a skillset that looks an ideal fit for the requirements of a Simeone team.

Throughout Simeone's 10 years as Atletico coach, his signings of creative players have tended to be hit and miss, with it a common perception that his intense demands both in training and during matches can sometimes stifle more mercurial talents who are not used to such workloads.

But De Paul, who is comfortable playing both centrally and out wide, has shown plenty of evidence he should be up to the challenge.

 

Providing creativity is De Paul's bread and butter, with his 82 key passes in 2020-21 bettered by only Hakan Calhanoglu (98) in Serie A. Of those chances, 34 came from set-pieces, highlighting his prowess from dead-ball situations and ranking him fourth in Italy's top flight.

Only five players got more assists than his nine, but all of them massively out-performed their modest expected assists (xA) records, which ranged from 3.4 to 6.7. De Paul topped the charts for expected assists with 10.3 xA, evidence that his assists reflected the quality of his service rather than him getting lucky or benefiting from unusually good finishing by team-mates.

Yet the area that highlights a particular compatibility with Atleti is the fact he won more duels (294) than anyone else in Serie A in 2020-21.

Combine that with his league-leading completed dribbles (122) and it paints a picture of a hard-working player who also possesses the quality to get his team on the front foot.

His creativity and dribbling abilities are two facets that Atletico don't necessarily have in abundance in their central midfield options, yet he balances those with a genuine work ethic. De Paul could well be an absolute triumph of a signing.

Joao Felix's time?

Joao Felix's 2019 arrival at the Wanda Metropolitano was met by the clamouring of Simeone critics suggesting this was the signing that would finally see the renowned pragmatist cut loose and suddenly become the entertainer many hoped he could be.

It didn't work out that way. In fact, their haul of 51 LaLiga goals in 2019-20 was the lowest they had managed since scoring just 46 in 2006-07 – they somehow became even tougher to watch.

This did not do much to convince those adamant Simeone was to blame for Joao Felix's form – many people called for the young talent to be given a "free role" that allowed him to play without the shackles normally associated with the coach's disciplined system.

But for a period in 2020-21, there were real signs that Joao Felix was beginning to find his feet. While he was not necessarily roaming as some might have envisioned, his role - being more of a withdrawn forward towards the left - in the first half of last season saw him become one of LaLiga's standout players.

One theory was that Suarez's signing helped Joao Felix significantly. After all, the Uruguayan enjoyed a near-telepathic on-pitch relationship with Messi and has always boasted exceptional off-ball intelligence. He can make great players look even better.

 

For example, prior to Atletico's 1-0 win over Barca at the Wanda Metropolitano on November 21 last year, Joao Felix had already created the same amount of chances for Suarez (four) as he had for anyone else in all of 2019-20.

But it's fair to say the Portugal talent did not manage to maintain his status as a standout player for the full season. Bouts of illness, injuries and a suspension all hampered him after the turn of the year as he made just five of his 14 league starts after January 1. In fact, his final total of starts was seven fewer than in 2019-20.

Joao Felix's productivity was not as impressive as a result. He went from creating 1.5 chances per game to 0.9 and appeared far less willing to run with the ball, attempting 26 dribbles compared to 43 before January 1.

Sure, his assists count went up from two to three, though between January 1 and the end of the season his expected assists (xA) value was just 0.77, suggesting he benefited from some help from his team-mates.

Joao Felix's influence in build-up play did not change dramatically, only going down to 4.0 shot-ending sequence involvements from 4.9, which was not massively better than he managed in 2019-20 (4.64), but he lacked the sharpness to make the difference at the top end of the pitch as often.

Hopefully 2021-22 will have less upheaval for him and allow for greater consistency. With Messi gone, LaLiga needs a new headline superstar – Joao Felix has the talent, but whether Atletico and Simeone can truly harness it is another matter entirely.

Nevertheless, Atleti excelled even when Joao Felix was not hitting the heights expected. As they see Barca and Madrid appearing significantly weaker, Simeone and his players are heading into 2021-22 as the team to beat.

Related items

  • Maddison makes England case again, missing World Cup 'a shame for the country' Maddison makes England case again, missing World Cup 'a shame for the country'

    James Maddison not going to the World Cup with England would be "a shame for the country", said Brendan Rodgers after the Leicester City midfielder scored another two goals on Monday.

    Maddison's continued absence from Gareth Southgate's Three Lions squad has been the source of some contention.

    The 25-year-old has earned only a single England cap, in November 2019, and appears to face an uphill battle to gain favour with Southgate before Qatar 2022 kicks off next month.

    Yet Maddison has started the Premier League season in outstanding form. After scoring two and assisting another in Leicester's 4-0 win over fellow strugglers Nottingham Forest, he has seven goal involvements in seven appearances.

    Going back to the start of the previous campaign, Southgate's captain Harry Kane is the only English player with more Premier League goals (24) or goal involvements (34) than Maddison (17 goals, 10 assists).

    "It's such a shame for the country and for James himself," manager Rodgers told Sky Sports. "You see his talent, and his performance level for the last 18 months I think everybody is clear on.

    "I think it's only Harry Kane who has created and scored more goals than him, so to not even be in the squad...

    "Even if he's not going to start, to have a player of that quality and not only in that, in international football, to have the personality to take the ball, be creative, take the ball and change the game, James is all of that. He's an absolutely brilliant player.

    "I really hope over these next few months he can continue the form he's shown for 18 months and somehow get into the team, because if you're wanting creativity, you're wanting personality – he's improved his defensive side of his game, and he can play in a couple of positions.

    "For me, he's an absolutely outstanding player, and he's up there.

    "I love Phil Foden, Mason Mount, those boys who play there – Jack Grealish is different, Jack plays from the side – but Madders can play in a number of positions to a high level, and he showed that tonight."

    Maddison, who said suggestions he would not be a good character within the group if not starting were "insulting", added: "It's been a weird position for me.

    "We [Leicester] have been bottom of the league, and results have not been going our way, but I've almost been as confident as I've ever been in my career.

    "I don't remember over the last 12 months playing better than I have and feeling as well as I have.

    "It's obviously hard to answer this question [on his England hopes], because you want to say the right thing, you don't want to say the wrong thing, but that's an ambition of mine, a goal of mine.

    "I'm a football man, I watch all the games, I watch international football, and an opportunity at that level would be something I desire. I almost know I'd have an impact.

    "It's one I hope will come my way at some point."

  • Zach Wilson's fourth-quarter heroics offer hope things will finally get better for the Jets Zach Wilson's fourth-quarter heroics offer hope things will finally get better for the Jets

    "One thing you can be sure about in life: just when you think that things are never ever going to get better, they suddenly get worse."

    The mantra of Victor Meldrew, the curmudgeonly lead character of British sitcom 'One Foot in The Grave' is one that has long since applied to the New York Jets.

    As such, it was difficult to envisage anything other than a painful ending to the Jets' Week 4 game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which saw Zach Wilson – returning from a preseason knee injury that once looked as if it would end his 2022 campaign before it started – given three minutes and 35 seconds to drive his team down 65 yards for a game-winning touchdown. 

    The fact he succeeded in doing so and the manner in which he achieved that feat suggests head coach Robert Saleh may soon be able to start pulling out the receipts he so emphatically spoke of in the face of questions about criticism of his team following a meek season-opening 24-9 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

    Wilson's raw numbers – a completion percentage of 50, 252 passing yards, one touchdown and two interceptions – along with a well-thrown percentage of 77.4 (below the average of 79 for the week) do not illustrate an overly impressive performance from a quarterback the franchise is hoping and praying will make the leap in his second year in the NFL.

    And in many ways, Wilson's display was a 'greatest hits' of everything that makes observers doubt his ability to make the grade at the highest level. He struggled under pressure, missed throws, attempted dangerous desperation heaves and, unsurprisingly, committed turnovers that on another day might have proved backbreaking.

    Yet Wilson never lost the confidence he exuded on the Jets' first touchdown drive, which saw him hit Elijah Moore on a perfectly timed deep comeback and go back to the same receiver on the deep dig before he then caught the ball for the score from Braxton Berrios on a trick play he celebrated with the 'gritty' dance.

    There was both grit and that same confidence on show as Wilson then led the Jets on successive touchdown drives to turn around a 20-10 deficit to secure the victory.

    He hit Corey Davis in stride on fourth down to keep the first of those drives alive before connecting with Davis again on the whip route for a five-yard touchdown after a succession of red-zone penalties threatened to stall the Jets' progress.

    Wilson was six for six passing on the final drive, producing another pinpoint downfield throw to Davis to help set up Breece Hall's two-yard touchdown run to stun a Steelers crowd ready to crown Kenny Pickett as their saviour after he replaced Mitchell Trubisky at half-time.

    Both Wilson and the Jets still have a long way to go, the downs that came with the critical ups in this game reiterated as much. Yet his showing also demonstrated how effective he could become with a talented supporting cast around him.

    The Jets' offensive line has been hit by injuries, but between Hall, Davis, Moore and standout rookie namesake Garrett Wilson, last year's second overall pick has the skill position players around him to make significant strides in 2022.

    Garrett Wilson (two receptions for 41 yards) was kept relatively quiet by his early-season standards, but Davis (five for 74 yards and a touchdown) and Moore (three for 53) shone when it mattered for the Jets, while Hall's 66-yard effort contained flashes of the upside on the ground that convinced the Jets to take him in the second round.

    A big-ticket signing in free agency last year, Davis is repaying the Jets' investment in him by registering a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 18 of his 24 targets. His burn rate of 75 per cent is the best among receivers with at least 20 targets. He also leads all wideouts in burn yards per target (17.16) and big-play rate (56.1 per cent).

    Garrett Wilson is averaging 3.7 burn yards per route, well above the average of 3.0, and all three of the Jets' top trio of wideouts have double-digit receptions for first downs. Davis has racked up 13, Garrett Wilson has 12 and Moore 10. Hall, meanwhile, is averaging 4.7 yards per attempt and has put up 3.24 yards before contact per rush (the average for backs with at least 10 attempts is 2.51), showing burst that was doubted by some draftniks prior to his selection by the Jets.

    On the other side of the ball, however, there are still doubts about a defense that has allowed 12 offensive touchdowns, tied for the third-most in the NFL, even after a performance in which they picked off Trubisky once and Pickett three times.

    While the Steelers were missing star edge rusher T.J. Watt and dealing with sub-par play at quarterback, a win on the road in Pittsburgh is one that should breed confidence in the ecosystem and in Wilson.

    Games against the Miami Dolphins, Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos present a challenging immediate road ahead for Wilson but after his fourth-quarter heroics in Pittsburgh, there is room for confidence that this time, with this quarterback and this surrounding cast, things will finally get better for the Jets.

  • Xavi not looking for Inter revenge in 'very important' San Siro showdown Xavi not looking for Inter revenge in 'very important' San Siro showdown

    Xavi will not be on a revenge mission when Barcelona face Inter in a "very important" Champions League showdown at San Siro on Tuesday.

    Head coach Xavi was in the Barca side knocked out of the Champions League by Inter at the semi-final stage in 2010.

    The Blaugrana were beaten 3-1 in the first leg in Milan and failed to overturn that deficit, crashing out after winning 1-0 at Camp Nou against Jose Mourinho's men, who went on to lift the trophy.

    Xavi returns to San Siro with the two sides both having picked up three points from their opening two Group C games, with Barca beaten 2-0 at leaders Bayern Munich last month.

    And the former Spain midfielder is motivated by the prospect of qualifying for the last 16 rather than having a score to settle.

    He said: "I have no feeling of [wanting] revenge. I come here as a coach this time. I remember that we had to travel by bus [to Milan] because of the volcano, but they were a great team.

    "It was difficult for us in the first leg. We lost it here. It was a controversial tie, but this is how it is. It's a bitter memory for us, unfortunately."

    Inter boss Simone Inzaghi is under pressure with his side ninth in Serie A following back-to-back defeats to Udinese and Roma.

    But Xavi is not reading anything into the Nerazzurri's poor form, as he knows they have the quality to turn things around.

    "It's not significant," he said. "It's Inter, a very strong team. They have a different system to anything we've come across so far.

    "They play with two strikers, something you don't see too much in Spain. They're a tough opponent, with good dynamics, but that has to be shown."

    Xavi added: "I have it quite clear. Despite the size of the rival, we are clear that we want to dominate. It is an important rival. It is the Champions League. It is not a definitive match, but it is very important for the future of the group."

    Inter have won just two of their 14 European matches against Barcelona, a 2-1 victory in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in January 1970 and that 3-1 Champions League triumph in April 2010.

    However, Barca's only two away wins against the Nerazzurri came 60 years apart, winning 4-2 in the Fairs Cup in September 1959 and 2-1 in the Champions League in December 2019.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.