[dropcap]A[/dropcap] 1-0 win over Levante yesterday moved Atlético Madrid to the top of the La Liga table, with Diego Simeone’s side looking set to put forward a sustained title challenge again this season.
The Estadio Vicente Calderón outfit became Spanish champions against all odds in 2013-14, with the astute Argentine trainer also leading the capital city side to the Champions League final.
Despite the loss of some key personnel since such as Thibaut Courtois, Diego Costa and Arda Turan, Atleti continue to pose a considerable threat, overcoming an unfair domestic playing field in the process.
Although Atlético’s direct and hard-working style of play catapulted the club to become Spanish champions, Simeone has been forced to adapt the way his team performs to continue to be successful.
A 4-4-2 system of sorts was the former Racing boss’ formation of choice when he first joined the Madrid club, but this has now evolved to a three-man pivot in the centre of midfield and a 4-3-3 set-up.
This change in formation has been for a number of reasons, including the fact that the opposition have come to terms with playing Atleti.
In midfield, the title-winning side were reliant on stalwarts Tiago and Gabi in the boiler room, but with the duo now 34 and 32 respectively, an extra body has been added to keep the capital city side dominant in the centre of the park.
Koke operated from the left-hand side two years ago, but has now been moved centrally into a role that allows him to get more involved in play and from box-to-box.
The emergence and evolution of the promising Saúl Ñíguez, the inclusion of yesterday’s match winner Thomas Partey and utilising gifted pass-master Óliver Torres centrally has also given Simeone lots of options in the heart of his team.
In attack, Diego Costa was the talisman and leader as a lone striker when Atleti won the league, with the likes of Brazilian playmaker Diego or veteran David Villa playing off the now Chelsea centre forward.
The lone striker role remains in Atlético’s current guise, but a player of Costa’s dominance is lacking.
Fernando Torres will work hard for his side and fits into Simeone’s team without being lethal in front of goal.
Jackson Martínez has all the attributes to play in the role but so far has failed to live up to his billing and is in danger of being added to the list of foreign players to recently fail at the Vicente Calderón.
Without a lethal centre forward to lead the line, Atlético have relied on the goals of Antoine Griezmann, who continues to be an attacking menace from a wide area, rather than in the support role he played last season.
Simeone has plenty of options to fulfil the third attacking role, but up-and-coming Belgian starlet Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco seems to fit the bill best, offering pace and width on the left flank.
Ángel Correa continues to excel when utilised and can play anywhere along the frontline, while Luciano Vietto’s career has stagnated over the last six months despite his considerable promise.
All-in-all, Simeone’s change in tactics has a number of real benefits for Atlético.
An extra man in midfield reduces the strain on Gabi and Tiago, while also allowing Koke or Saúl to play centrally, keeping Atleti competitive but also allowing attacking runs from the centre of the park – something that the championship-winning side did not always possess.
Carrasco’s presence offers width to a team that has largely been focused on playing through the middle in recent years, while Griezmann has been given a licence to start from wide but take up dangerous positions across the forward line.
There is much more flexibility in the personnel at Simeone’s disposal, with different options in his front six to be deployed dependant on form, fitness and the opposition.
Finally, in tricky away matches Atlético’s 4-3-3 formation can become a 4-5-1, making this hard-working and industrious team even tougher to break down; this is shown by the fact that they have only conceded eight goals in 18 matches this season.
Atlético are certainly a La Liga title challenger this season and will be even more dangerous if Torres or Martínez can start scoring with more regularity.
The capital city side continues to break up the Clásico superiority in Spanish football, with Simeone’s tweak in tactics keeping Atleti punching above their weight.
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