For what was long seen solely as a two horse race every year in the Spanish top flight with only the El Clasico pairing of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona capable of even challenging for the title, more than ever this season certainly offers a weighty counter argument to those on their masses that dismiss La Liga of being one of the most competitive and high quality leagues in Europe.
Despite Valencia’s recent struggles, a team of an incredibly select few who have previously been considered as a La Liga heavyweight in times gone by, there are plenty of teams capable of causing high profile upsets throughout the league. For those who somewhat narrow mindedly consider the Premier League as the benchmark for the best quality of football in Europe, when comparing both leagues like for like, teams such Villarreal, Athletic Club and Real Sociedad are not only of equal stature to the likes of Everton, Southampton and West Ham United but also equally as, perhaps even more capable of spoiling the party for the teams at the very top of the league. For every well-ran club like Bournemouth or Middlesbrough, there are RCD Espanyol and Las Palmas who seem to operate just as efficiently whether it be on or off the pitch; of course not forgetting high-flying Eibar who in themselves offer an almost identical residence and determination to defy the odds on a shoestring budget as both continue to exceed expectations.
Likewise from the bottom to the top and in talking about the current 2016/17 league season, it would be very difficult not to mention the incredible job that Sevilla manager Jorge Sampaoli has done at the club. In the space of six months and with what looks (given their transfer spending since the Summer) the full backing of the club’s board and backroom staff, Sampaoli appears to have took Sevilla to another level; one that many thought was unobtainable largely with the current crop of players under previous boss Unai Emery. As well as progression and likely qualification go the Quarter Finals of the UEFA Champions League should they overcome unlikely English top tier champions Leicester City, Sevilla have been and continue to be a mainstay in the La Liga title race this season. Just as you think the wheels look poised to come completely off after dropping points to lower league opposition, such blips have proved to be nothing more than outliers as the Andalusian outfit then quickly go on to surprise Spanish football fans as they pick up an unlikely win or even a desperate draw in a game they never really looked like close to getting anything out of.
In the grand scheme of things you could say that in their renewed league success this season, Sevilla have attempted to follow in the footsteps of an exciting Atlético Madrid side that too defied all of their doubters and any previous (or lack of) expectations by overcoming the stigma of two-party party in Spanish football after their 2013/14 league title success. With an incredibly astute and one of the most highly sought after managers in the modern game firmly at the helm, not only does Diego Simeone ooze passion, enthusiasm and complete commitment to the cause but with his guidance and footballing experience he has been able to establish a much more balanced Atlético side in terms of top-quality across the pitch. In times gone by where Atlético may have fallen short because their limited star performers have well… stopped performing, nowadays Cholo’s Atleti are much more organised and well-drilled outfit with a squad depth that doesn’t jeopardise a break from the high level of football they are capable of showing on the pitch when they hit top gear.
Not only has youth development been a key component to the club’s success under the Argentine with the likes of Saul Niguez, Jan Oblak and Yannick Carrasco coming on leaps and bounds and perhaps embodying the importance for talented young players to provide wider squad depth at a modern-day Atleti but similarly, recent signings have also made the club, more unified with both a greater togetherness as well as competitiveness on the pitch to sufficiently pit their wits against FC Barcelona and their fierce cross-city rivals. Yet striking and perhaps the most poignant difference between the current Atlético Madrid and one of old has to be the club’s mentality and approach to the future. Long considered a hotbed of some of the finest talent in European Football, it’s rare that you see Atlético Madrid succumbing to financial firepower from overseas anymore with the club seemingly more capable than in times gone by to keep hold of their star performers. Of course an individual expressing a desire to leave as witnessed recently with Antoine Griezmann’s comments to the press over a potential summer transfer to either a England or France is one thing but buckling under the pressure of a mega-money offer that is placed on the table is something that Simeone’s side no longer appear to do.
Thankfully for the good of the Spanish top tier as a wider phenomena, the red half of Madrid have reappeared back on the footballing map – a club now able to both attract some of the finest players in the game to come and play in red and white as opposed to solely in white across the city, as well as comfortably keeping hold of their best players without any financial need to sell promising young products or star performers. Given the plethora of players however that have left Atlético Madrid and have since gone on to become world-class individuals within their own right, it does therefore beg the question as to whether the club will continue to struggle at least in the short-term for their transfer activity in the past?
For transfer deals that may have seen like pieces of shrewd business at the time; allowing the club to add to their conveyer-belt of players that they have become known for signing at low cost before selling them on for much, much more, with the majority of world-class players concentrated at a select handful of European clubs, will Atlético their ‘mistakes’ in the future and view their past-player departures as missed opportunities in taking the club to even dizzier heights?
Social media, whether you love it or loathe it, has certainly had an impact on modern-day football. Especially in hitting the bullseye and reminiscing about what you perhaps could have won or just at how it could have been had things turned out differently, the likes of Twitter and Facebook can be some of the most crushing ways of looking back at you think with the benefit of hindsight should have done differently – in a walks of life. In purely footballing terms, all it can take is a Starting XI mock-up of players past and present to make club supporters realise how big of a loss certain individuals may have been and at Atlético, this idea of what if and what was rather than what actually ‘is’, is extremely evident. A sense of unwanted resignation and acceptance that despite their recent on-field success, could Simeone’s side have even been more dominant and built on their previous domestic success had they kept their star players?
Nobody will ever know the answer for definite but when you consider the blistering form of former Atleti strike duo Diego Costa and Radamel Falcao, you could probably guess with a reasonable degree of confidence that they’d be a much better team with both. As El Tigre continues to recapture the form which earned the Colombian a high-profile move away in the first place, Diego Costa alongside another former Atlético Madrid forward who he later followed in the footsteps of, Sergio Aguero, continue to light up the Premier League with goals galore. Losing Diego Forlan may also be seen as further evidence of Atleti cutting their nose to spite their face in the long term, as does the loss of the now Spanish number one David de Gea to Manchester United. Clearly Jan Oblak isn’t the worst replacement in the world if you’re an Atleti fan but with even one of the three/four aforementioned players back in the current fold in Madrid, it’s a scary prospect thinking just how strong they could have perhaps been.
The sale of Filipe Luis to Chelsea before returning months later may well have been a turning point for the club; symbolic in that a player purchased by then Premier League champions Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, favoured a return to Atletico Madrid and more importantly regular first-team football at the highest level in the game. Unlike Aguero, Costa and De Gea, Felipe Luis may have looked the one who got away after moving to England but after things failed to work out for the best on English soil, former club Atlético seemingly still had the same level of attraction as it did prior to Luis’ move to London. Rather than the safest way of one day orchestrating a move to cross-city neighbours Real by merely moving further afield to allow any instant hostility to die down when entertaining such an idea, differently to times gone by the Brazilian left-back’s return was good for the club on numerous levels – a sense of comeuppance with the signature of a refreshed defender looking to get his career back on track and vital assurance that Atlético have as much as appeal as the number of suitors that queued up to sign him almost now three seasons ago.
Heading into the future, it’s most definitely one step forward for Simeone’s side when it comes to wider progression both on and off the pitch. However you do however just wonder whether for all the club’s good work recently, will it be their previous actions are now viewed as steps in the wrong direction in letting their former stars go? Only time will tell with the Griezmann summer saga looking likely to answer this once and for all. With such a shortage of strikers quite as good as the Frenchman currently available in world football and the likes of Paolo Dybala, Alvaro Morata and Mauro Icardi tied to footballing powerhouses already in the shape of Juventus, Real Madrid and Internazionale, how Atleti go about replacing Griezmann will be vital.
Get it right and they’ll be laughing all the way to the bank…. Get it wrong however and he could too be another that Madrid fans will rue letting go. Whatever happens in what looks set to be one of the sagas of the summer and a story that won’t certainly disappear until the window slams shut at the start of September, here’s hoping that Atlético Madrid have no regrets and that they’re not left to pay for their transfer dealings as they have done in the past.