Atlético Madrid enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in their history in 2013/14, but the summer transfer window that followed had the potential to be one on a similar scale of gut-wrenching as Sergio Ramos’ last minute equaliser and the ensuing rout which occurred against their arch-rivals in the Champions League final in Lisbon.
Whilst that’s admittedly an exaggeration, the bigger and richer clubs were circling impatiently for the players who were so vital in their success and the threat of their team being torn apart was undoubtedly a far too real proposition for the fans and Diego Simeone. Rumours slowly turned into concrete news of sales and, despite the fundamental essence of the team remaining, a decent chunk of the true individual quality they had disappeared.
Amongst those departures were David Villa and Diego Costa, Atlético’s two highest goal-scorers in La Liga (with 13 and 27 respectively) that season and their whole first-choice front-line – leaving Simeone with a rebuilding job to do in the attacking areas. Finding players who could score those levels of goals was one thing, but it would also have to be done with personnel who could replicate what the pair brought to the system as a whole; making it a yet more challenging process.
Villa was certainly a loss, though one that seemed reasonable to be able to cope with, but replacing Costa and his attacking impact as a whole on the other hand looked to be a practically impossible task for them. In Mario Mandžukić however they managed to find someone who, whilst a slight downgrade in terms of his all-round game and goal-scoring ability, could provide an almost identical contribution of a similar level to the team and the whole system.
A one-man pressing machine with excess energy to burn, Mandžukić is often the instigator of his side’s closing down. His energy often prevents the opposition from building play up quickly in favourable areas, forcing the ball to move laterally or backwards instead of in a more direct, vertical manner, giving his side a brief but vital respite from potential pressure. This allows a few extra seconds for them to get back into position and form a solid defensive shape when the ball is lost instead of them being open on transitions.
Being a team who look to control space instead of the ball, transitions are of even greater importance to Atleti in order to ensure they’re set up in a way which enables them to dictate where play can go. The defence and midfield members are superb at doing this already but having someone of Mandžukić’s ilk (or Costa before him) can make it an even more effective and smoother process.
As a natural striker with a clear vacancy for him in the team, Mandžukić’s role and where he’d slot into the system was simple to work out in theory. However, as for Antoine Griezmann, their other expensive attacking signing (who has of course gone on to play up front now), exactly what part he would have to play was open to interpretation and much more interesting.
Where the emphasis under Diego Simeone has always been about maintaining the team unit rather than relying on individuals, the impetus on the wide midfielders in their rigid system is significantly different to what Griezmann has been used to in his career up until now. So, although he had operated and thrived distinctly as a winger at Real Sociedad, fitting the Frenchman into the team at Atleti in that position was something which looked somewhat problematic for the stability of the team overall.
Asked to regularly tuck in centrally and form a tight, compact and disciplined block in the centre of the pitch, Koke and Arda Turan have (or rather, have been nurtured by Simeone to have) a fine balance to their game which makes them perfectly suited to their roles. Moving the former infield to allow Griezmann to play on the left – what many expected to happen – would add greater creativity to the side from deeper areas, something which would perhaps have been appreciated after losing someone of Costa’s quality up front, but it would come at a detrimental cost elsewhere. Why would Simeone risk upsetting one of the biggest foundations of his success?
Instead, the manager saw a different future for the Frenchman in the side. The midfield four and thus most importantly the style which had proved so reliable would remain untouched, and Griezmann would be thrust into an unfamiliar central role alongside his fellow new signing Mandžukić.
Unfamiliar it may have been, and perhaps – as a record of just one goal in his first nine games suggests – you could tell that in his first few performances there, but as we head towards the end of the season he now looks like a complete natural in his new position. By recognising the transferability of Griezmann’s attributes in terms of roles and adjusting his game little by little, Simeone has managed to find (or perhaps even create) someone perfectly suited to do what he wants in attacking areas.
One of those skills is, of course, what strikers are judged on at the end of the day – the ability to score goals. That clinical edge is something which has certainly grown apparent in the Frenchman’s game in the last few years, both at Real Sociedad and particularly now in Madrid under Simeone. After scoring 10 in the league in 2012/13, he then got 16 last year – and with 14 games left and 14 scored already he’s well on course to improve on that again this season. Those tallies make him look like an impressive goal-scorer on the face of it alone, but looking beyond just the overall goal total and putting it into context shows an even more impressive set of data for him.
Playing out wide last season, Griezmann’s shot-to-goal rate was 14.4%; the lowest conversion record of those featured in the table. However what has to be noted is that just 64.0% of his shots happened from inside the box – an area where his conversion rate increased to a much better 19.7%. Even though that may still be 5.0% lower than Costa’s record in the same season, Griezmann’s chances often came from when he was entering the box from wide positions, rather than the more central ones which provided a more favourable shooting angle for Costa and the others listed.
Considering that record and the context of where it came from on the pitch alone, the conversion of him into a central striker made great theoretical sense; but Simeone deserves enormous credit for recognising he has the right attributes as a whole and for turning the proposition into a reality. And what a reality it’s been.
With a higher proportion of his shots being taken inside the box and from more favourable positions, Griezmann’s shooting stats have gone through the roof: in fact he’s almost doubled in effectiveness. His conversion rate from all efforts has been an impressive 28.0%, whilst it rises to 36.8% when looking only at efforts from inside the box. That’s a full 12.1% ahead of the 2013/14 figures for Costa, one of the most feared strikers and best finishers around the world. And just in case anyone wants another figure to compare it to, a certain Lionel Messi’s shot-to-goal rate inside the box this season is 32.4%.
It’s not just the efficiency in front of goal which has made him an excellent addition to Atleti’s forward line though, and there’s a flair and explosiveness about Griezmann which is vital for providing a similar kind of counter-attacking threat to that which Costa offered last year – because although Mandžukić holds a number of similarities to Costa in defensive phases, attacking-wise he lacks the sheer pace and power of the man whom he’s replaced. If not for that threat of breaking from deep quickly the lack of a real outlet would possibly lead to Atleti getting shut down in their own half, making Griezmann’s ability to do so a very useful and necessary addition to the team up top.
Where Griezmann makes up for what the Croatian lacks, it also applies in the opposite way. The physical presence and ability to hold the ball up which Mandžukić provides means there’s a different kind of danger to look out for from the opposition’s point of view, whilst it also allows Griezmann (and other teammates) to be brought into play when he makes runs to the side of or beyond his strike partner. There’s great variation in their skill-set, and it makes for a truly brilliant combination.
However it isn’t just their differences which make them a very compatible partnership for Atleti, though. One of the things which they both provide (something which the Villa and Costa pairing similarly offered) is a willingness to run into the channels – with the case often being that one of them does it (helping to overload with the full-backs and wide midfielders when they push on) whilst the other one remains central. Should the ball come into the box then Mandžukić is an obvious aerial presence due to his height, but Griezmann also has a rather understated ability when the ball is off the ground despite his stature.
That can be reflected in the number of headed goals they’ve scored this season: both have four each, accounting for close to a third (30.7%) of the 26 they have between them in La Liga. To possess that threat, particularly in a team who have scored a staggering 21 (42%) of their league goals from set-pieces (excluding penalties) this season, is mutually beneficial for both Atleti as a whole and also them as goal-scorers.
Individually the two of them are brilliant players who are on formidable form right now – and yet, whilst that individual quality was a welcome addition in this past summer of all times, that isn’t what this Atlético Madrid side is all about. It’s about them as a pair, how they fit into the overall cohesive team unit which Simeone has mastered; and the recruitment of a player like Mandžukić and the transformation of Griezmann under Simeone's tutelage is a perfect indication of that.