Football Features

All change? How Diego Simeone can reinvent Atletico Madrid amid string of high-profile departures

By Chris Smith

Published: 16:08, 22 May 2019

Antoine Griezmann is heading for the exit door but he may not be the only one in what is set to be a tumultuous summer for Atletico Madrid.

Diego Simeone has always done a fantastic job in restructuring his side, still managing to deliver trophies and Champions League football despite seeing a stream of star players depart for pastures new.

But alongside the talismanic Griezmann, club captain and iconic defender Diego Godin has played his last game for Atleti, as has fellow veteran Juanfran.

As if those three Atletico legends upping sticks wasn’t enough, Simeone may also have to contend with letting midfielder Rodri leave, with Manchester City reportedly keen on his signature, while Barcelona are rumoured to be targeting Filipe Luis to strengthen their cover for Jordi Alba at left-back. Oh, and did we mention Lucas Hernandez has already agreed a move to Bayern Munich?

So, with this raft of legendary talent set to leave, how can Simeone plug the gaps? Which players will he look to bring in to ensure Atletico remain one of Spain’s superpowers? And which young prospects can step up to the mark in the absence of some of the most experienced pros in European football?

1. Antoine Griezmann

If you’re about to lose an icon of French footballer, who also happens to be your most potent attacking threat, what better way to replace him than with another lethal French forward?

Reports are suggesting Atletico are weighing up a £70m bid to sign Alexandre Lacazette from Arsenal, with the 27-year-old seen as one of the most highly suited players to Simeone’s system. The Argentine tactician often deploys a two-man strike force as part of his low block formation and Lacazette has flourished this season partnering Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up top for the Gunners.

Lacazette was Arsenal’s top assist provider (8) in the Premier League this season, while he also bagged a further 13 goals of his own. His contributions to Arsenal’s build-up play have been vital and the hope would be that he could dovetail with Alvaro Morata, who has another year left to run on his loan from Chelsea.

Alternatively, out-of-favour Juventus forward Paulo Dybala is another rumoured target and appears to be the ‘chosen one’ among Atleti fans. A poll held by AS saw Dybala beat Lacazette and Aubameyang with 5,500 votes as the Atleti supporters’ preferred replacement for Griezmann.

The Argentina international is similar to Griezmann and Lacazette in that he likes to drop into the space between the opposition defence and midfield, linking up play and creating space for those around him. He isn’t your conventional centre-forward, often being deployed in midfield positions. But then again, Simeone isn’t a conventional manager and Dybala’s goal record for Juve speaks for itself: 78 goals in 181 games.

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Of course, if Simeone wants to save some cash for elsewhere on the pitch, there’s always the chance he could start throwing in 18-year-old Sergio Camello, who introduced himself in style with a goal on his debut during Atletico’s 2-2 draw with Levante on the final day of the La Liga season.

2. Diego Godin

Griezmann may have grabbed the goals and headlines over the past few years but no one embodies what Atletico have been all about under Simeone more than Godin. He has captained them through a La Liga title win, two Champions League finals, Europa League successes – and the rest. The Uruguayan has quite simply been an indomitable force at the heart of Atletico’s defence.

Multiple sources are reporting that Simeone will look to one of his compatriots to replace Godin, with Man City’s Nicolas Otamendi being touted as his main target. Despite making the 2017/18 Premier League Team of the Season, Otamendi found himself marginalised this season, with Aymeric Laporte nailing down a starting berth, while John Stones and Vincent Kompany were often the ones trusted to line up alongside the Frenchman.

And while he isn’t quite as reliable as Godin – making more errors leading to shots (6) in the Premier League than any other outfield City player since Pep Guardiola arrived – he still possesses much of the same tenacity and bullish will to win as the 33-year-old does and is still a top-class defender in his own right.

Otamendi is still under contract until 2022 and would command quite a sizeable fee. However, given how much they’re likely to receive for some of their outgoing players – not least Griezmann – this shouldn’t be an issue.

3. Juanfran, Lucas Hernandez & Filipe Luis

Alongside Godin, Juanfran has been a real stalwart during Atletico’s golden era. However, age has finally caught up with him.

Simeone has rotated him with Santiago Arias this season and while the Colombian hasn’t managed to hold down his spot so far, he has more than enough ability to make the right-back position his own.

Arias made 1.73 interceptions per 90 minutes in La Liga this season – the fourth-highest in Atletico’s squad – and the feeling is that with a little bit of trust and a run of games, the Colombian will flourish next season.

On the other side of the defence, Lucas Hernandez has already agreed a £70m move to Bayern and Filipe Luis is rumoured to be a target for Barcelona, leaving yet more surgery required on Simeone’s defence.

Porto’s Alex Telles has impressed many this season, providing 11 assists across Primeira Liga and Champions League games. A move to Spain would be favourable, as well as moving to a more competitive league, and reports suggest Atletico are ready to activate his £35m release clause. Given his exploits in the Champions League with Porto this season, some would claim Telles would even be an upgrade on what they already have.

Alternatively, Atletico have been linked with Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso. The Spain international’s delivery is second to none but a perceived defensive weakness has seen him fall behind Emerson Palmieri in Maurizio Sarri’s pecking order. Whether or not this puts Simeone off, a man who insists a defender must be able to, well, defend, remains to be seen.

4. Rodri

Between Rodri, Koke and Saul, Atletico have a truly world-class midfield but, just as it is with their attack and defence, that looks set to be torn apart this summer.

Saul has already been linked with a move to Man City but the more prominent rumour that is now spreading involves Rodri.

Guardiola clearly needs an understudy and eventual replacement for Fernandinho, whose role at the base of City’s midfield has proven key during the Catalan’s tenure. At 34, he’s not getting any younger and injuries are starting to catch up with him.

Rodri’s rise since making his £17.5m move from Villarreal last summer has been remarkable, with the Spaniard making more blocks (11), winning more duels (242) and completing more passes (1756) than any Atletico midfielder in La Liga during 2018/19.

According to AS, Atletico have been quoted €50m (£43.7m) by rivals Real Madrid to bring Marcos Llorente to the Wanda Metropolitano as Rodri’s replacement. Even a struggling Real have a wealth of midfield talent at their disposal and thus far, Llorente has struggled to make an impact on the first team.

However, the 24-year-old combines supreme passing with crunching tackles and relentless work rate, making him the archetypal Simeone midfielder. The price is steep but then again, when buying from your rivals, it always will be. If they are to remain competitive at the top of La Liga, Atletico cannot be put off by price when filling the hole Rodri would potentially leave.

To further bolster Simeone’s midfield options, reports are also linking Atletico with a move for Man Utd’s Juan Mata, who is now available on a free with his contract about to expire.

Mata has been one of the most effective playmakers in English football over the past few years but hasn’t been a regular in United’s starting XI this season. A return to Spanish football could see this icon of the game rediscover his magic touch and could add that bit of magic that will be lost as a result of Rodri and Griezmann’s departures.