Ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg at Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone rested most of his first choice players for Saturday’s La Liga game at home to Rayo Vallecano.
Even though Atletico needed to win to keep up with Barcelona and Real Madrid in the title race, Simeone trusted in a startlingly young XI. Goalkeeper Jan Oblak was one of the oldest at 23, as midfielders Thomas Partey and Matias Kranevitter along with forward Luciano Vietto are all 22, centre-back Jose Maria Gimenez, playmaker Oliver Torres and attacker Angel Correa just 21, while defender Lucas Hernandez only recently turned 20.
Such a callow team was understandably not as solid as Atletico generally are, so some substitutes were sent on – including two 24 year olds in Koke and Antoine Griezmann. The latter scored the game’s only goal, 43 seconds after entering, and his side took the three points to remain right in the title hunt with just two games remaining.
Simeone admitted afterwards that Atletico had struggled at times against relegation threatened Rayo, but as usual they had come through in the end.
“We went for the fresher players today,” he said, kindly. “It was difficult but not because many players who are not regular starters had come in, but because we did not play with the necessary intensity. Rayo had control of the game, made some chances. But at this stage of the season, with so many games, the most important thing is to win, and we did that so we are very happy.”
Saturday’s line-up had shown eight changes from the first leg at Bayern. But more astonishing is the difference to the squad which won the Spanish title and reached the Champions League final just two years ago.
Of the 18 man match squad for the UCL decider against Real Madrid in May 2014, 12 are no longer at the club, and just two completed the 90 minutes last weekend. These were the full-backs Juanfran Torres and Filipe Luis - and the latter has even spent a season at Chelsea in the meantime. Midfielders Gabi and Koke played 45 minutes each against Rayo, while Diego Godin and Tiago are injured. All the remaining players from Lisbon two years ago have moved on.
Such a turnaround in personnel is startling, especially as Atletico have remained successful despite so many big names leaving, often for big transfer fees. Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois went with Filipe to Chelsea. Other key players from the La Liga title winning team such as David Villa, Arda Turan, Miranda, Mario Suarez and Raul Garcia were moved on. Squad members Diego Ribas, Jose Sosa, Toby Alderweireld and Adrian Lopez played vital games as the season climaxed, but were only passing through.
Amid the constant churn of players, Atletico continue to make a profit. According to transferkmarkt.com - they are up about €22 million over 104 different deals done [many players feature more than once] during the last three years.
In recent summers, Atletico have spent some serious money on players like Griezmann [€30 million], Yannick Carrasco [€17 million] and Oblak [€16 million], although all of these players could be sold on for a tidy profit now. The €20 million spent on Vietto seems less of a bargain based on his current form, but the €8 million on emerging star Correa looks like a snip.
The Calderon club also have other promising youngsters on their books, but gaining experience elsewhere. Centre-forward Borja Baston, 23, has scored 17 La Liga goals on loan at Eibar this season. Young Colombian striking prospect Rafael Santos Borre joined last summer from Deportivo Cali for €5 million, and was immediately sent back for another year to his home country. Midfielder Bernard Mensah and defender Emiliano Velazquez are both parked at Getafe, while Josuha Guilavogui remains an Atletico player although he looks settled at Wolfsburg. Portuguese young player of the year Diogo Jota will join this summer for €7.2 million from Pacos Ferreira.
There is no one reason why Atletico can continue to do such business. An excellent youth system has produced jewels like Koke, Saul and now Lucas Hernandez. Links with Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes, and a number of different third-party investment funds, for sure play a big role. Simeone’s own connections to the Argentine market are also important. The club’s sporting director Andrea Berti remains a very low profile figure, although his work has not gone totally unnoticed, as Manchester United are apparently interested in taking him to Old Trafford this summer.
Simeone is also hugely sought after by much richer clubs elsewhere, but seems for the moment at least to have decided that Atletico offers his best chance of success. Ahead of Tuesday's return at Bayern, he was asked how his team continued to deal with such revolution and continue to compete right at the very top level.
“Hard work over these last four years,” Simeone responded. “And the players - with new people like Carrasco, Correa, Vietto, Saul… that inspires you. Internal competition makes us compete better outside. We have players who understand what it means to play for Atletico.”
It does seem that no matter who leaves, and who comes in, the team maintains its high standards. Individual players of varying talent and experience are able to contribute hugely to the team unit. Against Bayern in the first leg a centre-back pairing of Lucas, 20, and Gimenez, 22, kept Bayern centre-forward Robert Lewandowski remarkably quiet. The case of Filipe, a flop at Chelsea but now playing superbly again at Atletico, also shows how the team structure and club environment makes such a difference.
All this means that, although the names are different this year, Atletico go into the business end of the season right in the hunt for both the La Liga and the Champions League crowns. It also suggests that whether this season's side win two trophies, one trophy, or nothing, the future looks very bright at the Calderon.