Atletico Madrid’s peculiar decision to jeopardise their squad

With Atletico’s recent departures to the Chinese Super League, their squad is starting to look fairly thin on the ground.

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(Photo credit: DSanchez17)

Normally, the hopes of an unlikely title challenge at the halfway point of a season would prompt clubs to strengthen their squad, whether it be their starting XI or bench, with haste. 

Atletico Madrid, however, have undergone an entirely counter-intuitive approach, sanctioning several departures that reduce the depth of their squad overall.

With Los Colchoneros within five points of league leaders Barcelona before the weekend, the logic to this approach is not immediately obvious. 

Ten ahead of a sub-par Real Madrid in third place, Atletico had a real chance to close the gap to two when they met Barcelona on Sunday. 

In the end, though, Atletico’s ascent towards the top ground to a halt, losing 1-0 to the league leaders thanks to another metronomic Lionel Messi free kick.

The question is: to what extent has – and will – the thinness of their squad affect them? 

Shooting for the moon… then in the foot

Atletico started the season sluggishly. With Antoine Griezmann’s head elsewhere following failed transfer negotiations over the summer, his side failed to fire on anything like all cylinders. While they were unbeaten in the league, they were hardly incisive.

In real need of a fillip, Diego Costa was brought in over the winter. At €58 million, it was an expensive gamble and yet Costa has been the missing piece in attack. 

With the Brazilian striking a relationship with the Griezmann, Atletico went on the hunt for Barcelona, going on a winning streak the concluded with nine goals in their two league games against Sevilla and Leganes.

Beyond the league, Atletico still have a chance to win the Europa League, with a winnable Round of 16 tie coming up against Lokomotiv Moscow. But with a rare chance of a La Liga and Europa League double, Atletico then sold five first-team players in the winter.

A more pressing need

Aside from Costa, Vitolo was the other reinforcement brought into the club over the January window. Heading in the opposite direction, however, Yannick Carrasco, Nico Gaitan, Augusto Fernandez and Luciano Vietto all left the club. 

With these departures, Atletico Madrid’s squad was thin as it has ever been, leaving Diego Simeone with 19 players to choose from for the remaining fixtures across both La Liga and the Europa League.

In each of these cases of players leaving the club, whilst there is a logic to it, the more pressing need for a depth of squad seems to raise questions about the necessity of the sale.

To see Gaitan move to Dalian Yifang clears the books of an unwanted player. Of course, the perennial under-achiever, only played 548 minutes across all competitions and so his departure will hardly be felt. But to sell such a player in such a situation as Atletico Madrid find themselves in raises more questions than it answers.

The same goes for Miguel Angel Moya, who moved to Real Sociedad on an emergency free transfer. 

Spread thin

In defence, Diego Godin, Jose Gimenez and Stefan Savic remain the three centre-backs of choice, with the rejuvenated Sime Vrsaljko and Juanfran sharing game-time at right-back. 

On the other side of the defence, though, Lucas Hernandez has been forced to shuffle between centre-back and left-back to cover for Felipe Luis. 

It’s another case of having just enough bodies to play every week and, with an injury crisis always lurking around the corner, it seems as though the board members at the Wanda Metropolitana are dicing with death. 

Augusto Fernandez’s sale to Beijing Renhe has left a hole of sorts in the squad. His time at Atletico promised much but a cruel injury put paid to those hopes. 

During his time at the club, the Argentine only accrued 522 minutes of game time this season but, in his absence, there is now no real back-up in midfield. 

Koke, Saul Niguez, Gabi and Thomas Partey have already played in excess of 2000 minutes each (Saul with 3206’) that raises fears of burn-out, something which cost Atletico their Champions League in 2013-14.

A baffling decision

Finally, Atletico have options further forward: in addition to Griezmann and Costa, Atletico can also rely on the services of Kevin Gameiro and Fernando Torres, both solid back-ups to the starting duo. There is also Angel Correa, the perfect super-sub. 

This justifies Luciano Vietto’s loan to Valencia. After his struggled at Atletico, he is playing well there, suggesting it was the decision for the best.

The only true baffling decision was to sell Yannick Carrasco. He was a key member of the team in his three and a half seasons, racking up 124 appearances and scoring in the 2015-16 Champions League final. 

While his attitude is said to be questionable, his undeniable talent and skill-set could have been useful to Atletico in the title run-in. It’s a shame to see him move to Dalian Yifang after displaying plenty of promise at Monaco and his initial years at Atletico.

Where do the problems lie?

No one knows the input Diego Simeone had in his club’s winter dealings. He is not one to criticise openly but he must be frustrated at how he has been left short-handed. 

While Atletico are in need of bolstering finances after their stadium move, relying on academy players could be a major risk. Simeone may be left to prioritise one competition over the other. 

One hopes that injuries do not wreck his dreams of success. On the flip-side, the squad will be more close-knit, with all deadwood cast out. It is worth seeing whether their risk will pay off. With two goalkeepers and seventeen outfield players, the squad is as streamlined as it can be. 

At least Thomas Partey has signed a new contract till 2023. That’s something.

Will Atletico Madrid’s lack of squad depth come back to haunt them? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below.

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