Football Features

Forgotten Atlético Madrid players, from the never-used Diogo Jota to the Pichichi-winning Christian Vieri

By Euan McTear, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 14:30, 24 November 2022

As much as Diego Simeone has marched Atlético Madrid to the highest heights of European football over the past decade or so, the Argentine is often criticised for some of the transfer decisions he has been a part of.

It’s not so much the players he and the board have signed; it’s the ones that got away.

Some of the current stars of the Premier League briefly passed through the Spanish club and were discarded before they’d truly blossomed. They are among the 16 forgotten players discussed below, along with some now-retired blasts from the past who also wore the famous red-and-white stripes at one point or another.

1. Diogo Jota

Age: 25

Atlético first-team appearances: 0

Atlético goals: 0

Current club: Liverpool

Diogo Jota’s signing in 2020 cost Liverpool £40m, more than three times the £13m that Wolves paid Atlético for the winger four years ago. That transaction was to make Jota’s move to Molineux permanent after the Portuguese had already spent a season on loan there.

For whatever reason, Simeone didn’t rate Jota enough to keep him around in the Spanish capital after his arrival from Paços Ferreira in 2016. Even before he was shipped out on loan to Wolves, Atleti had sent him on another loan to Porto.

As such, Jota never made a single competitive appearance for Los Rojiblancos. He did play and score in a pre-season friendly against Crotone in 2016 and claimed to have learned a lot from Simeone during his brief pre-season experience with Atleti, but the reality is that he never got a shot to show his true worth.

2. Raul Jiménez

Age: 31

Atlético first-team appearances: 28

Atlético goals: 1

Current club: Wolves

Another player who succeeded at Wolves after limited opportunities with Atlético is Raul Jiménez. The Mexican forward did at least have a full season in the Spanish capital, playing 28 times for Los Colchoneros during 2014/15. The fact he only scored one goal meant he wasn’t kept on and was allowed to depart for Benfica in the summer of 2015, eventually making his way to the Premier League.

The stat of one goal from 28 appearances looks worse than it is. To be fair to Jiménez, he averaged 31 minutes per appearance across those 18 outings and it’s never easy to find goalscoring form when always being asked to come off the bench.

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3. Toby Alderweireld

Age: 33

Atlético first-team appearances: 22

Atlético goals: 2

Current club: Royal Antwerp

Toby Alderweireld only spent one season at Atlético, but what a season that was. The centre-back was there for the triumphant 2013/14 campaign in which they shocked the world by beating Barcelona and Real Madrid to the La Liga title and reaching the Champions League final.

The Belgian didn’t play much, as he was the back-up option to Diego Godín and Miranda, but he did make an impact whenever he was called upon. Atleti kept seven clean sheets in the 12 La Liga matches in which Alderweireld played, and he even scored a crucial goal against Málaga on the penultimate matchday.

In the Champions League final, he was thrown on at left-back in the latter stages in place of Filipe Luís, coming so close to European glory. That summer, like so many others in that Atleti squad, he departed for England. He later told Het Laatste Nieuws that he considers Simeone as the most influential defensive mind he’s worked with, even though they had just one campaign together.

4. Nico Gaitán

Age: 34

Atlético first-team appearances: 49

Atlético goals: 4

Current club: Paços de Ferreira

Simeone tried to make it work with Nico Gaitán at Atlético, but it just didn’t. Atleti had tried to sign him on other occasions before they eventually did in the summer of 2016, so there was great excitement when the winger landed from Benfica.

But Gaitán never really took off, partly because he often had to play out of position. There were a couple of bright moments, like a brace in a 7-1 thrashing of Granada or a dominant performance in a cup win over lower-league side Guijuelo.

“I hope Gaitán can keep playing like he did today,” Simeone said in the press conference after that Guijuelo win. He didn’t. And he was transferred to Chinese side Dalian Yifang (now Dalian Professional) in the 2017/18 winter window.

5. Borja Bastón

Age: 30

Atlético first-team appearances: 1

Atlético goals: 0

Current club: Oviedo

Borja Bastón’s Atlético story is a heartbreaking one. Given a chance in the final game of the 2009/10 season as a promising 17-year-old, he suffered an ACL injury just 21 minutes after coming on. He never played a competitive match for Atlético again.

That was such a setback that it threw his entire career path off, and he had to go out on various loans before eventually being sold to Swansea in 2016 in a permanent deal. He recently returned to the Spanish capital to sign with second-tier side Leganés, and now turns out for Oviedo.

6. Alejandro Garnacho

Age: 18

Atlético first-team appearances: 0

Atlético goals: 0

Current club: Manchester United

One that could really come back to haunt Atleti. Manchester United’s new superstar teenager joined the club’s academy in 2020 from Atletico Madrid and is already tearing up the Premier League, recently netting his first goal against Fulham before the World Cup. The sky is the limit for Garnacho, and with Cristiano Ronaldo recently confirming his departure from Old Trafford, there is a clear path to the first team for Erik ten Hag’s new boy wonder.

7. Bono

Age: 31

Atlético first-team appearances: 0

Atlético goals: 0

Current club: Sevilla

A Europa League-winning goalkeeper with Sevilla and last season’s ‘African MVP’ in La Liga, Bono has been making a serious impression in Andalusia since joining Los Nervionenses in 2019. Now starring in the World Cup with Morocco, Bono was actually brought to Europe by Atleti from Wydad Casablanca in 2012. A regular for the club’s B team, the dextrous shot-stopper was unable to supplant either Thibaut Courtois or Jan Oblak during his time in Madrid — which is no easy task — and eventually left.

8. Moussa Dembélé

Age: 26

Atlético first-team appearances: 7

Atlético goals: 0

Current club: Lyon

After two highly-fruitful seasons at Lyon following his move from Fulham, Atleti took Moussa Dembélé on loan in January 2021 with an option to buy the forward at the end of the campaign. Things didn’t quite work out for the Frenchman in the Spanish capital, and after only 95 minutes of La Liga action, he returned to Lyon in the summer, where he remains to this day.

9. Theo Hernández

Age: 25

Atlético first-team appearances: 0

Atlético goals: 0

Current club: Milan

Theo, like his brother Lucas, rose through the Atleti academy. But unlike his brother, he never actually made an appearance for the club, instead making the bold decision to cross the Atleti-Real divide in 2017 after a succesful loan spell at Alaves, during which time he famously scored a free-kick against Barcelona. You can see why Real wanted him. Unable to cement a consistent starting berth at the Bernabeu, Hernandez eventually upped sticks for Milan in 2019 and was a key part of their Serie A title win last term.

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Retired players

10. Christian Vieri

Atlético first-team appearances: 31

Atlético goals: 29

Christian Vieri spent almost his entire career in Serie A, but did have one brief fling with La Liga as he played at the Vicente Calderón in the 1997/98 season.

It was a very successful season for the Italian on an individual level as his 24 league goals won him the Pichichi Award for Spain’s top scorer and as his five UEFA Cup goals propelled the team to the semi-finals of that continental competition. He remains the only Italian to have ever finished as the top scorer in La Liga.

11. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink

Atlético first-team appearances: 45

Atlético goals: 33

Atlético Madrid’s relegation in 1999/2000 was such a shock because they’d assembled a talented squad that included Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in his prime. Even though he missed a penalty on the day when they suffered that relegation in Oviedo, it was by no means his fault. On the contrary, his goals had been the only positive in a disastrous season for the capital city outfit.

12. Mateja Kežman

Atlético first-team appearances: 32

Atlético goals: 9

After his one season at Chelsea, Mateja Kežman spent one campaign at Atlético in 2005/06. When injuries weren’t keeping him out of the side, he was a decent option for Atleti. Despite that, he signed a lucrative contract with Fenerbahçe in the summer of 2006.

13. Johnny Heitinga

Atlético first-team appearances: 37

Atlético goals: 3

The first club Johnny Heitinga signed for after eventually leaving his boyhood side Ajax was Atlético. The Dutch defender scored and assisted on his LaLiga debut, a 4-0 win over Málaga, but he only stayed for one year before his deadline day transfer to Everton in 2009.

14. Martín Demichelis

Atlético first-team appearances: 0

Atlético goals: 0

Manchester City weren’t the only club to sign Martín Demichelis in the summer of 2013. In that same transfer window, the Argentine had already moved from Málaga to Atlético Madrid for free, but left Spain’s capital to the tune of £4.5m before making a single official appearance for Simeone’s side.

With a profit like that for a player they’d never used, Atlético weren’t particularly sad to see the centre-back go.

15. Jackson Martínez

Age: 36

Atlético first-team appearances: 22

Atlético goals: 3

Gaitán isn’t the only player to have followed the Portugal-to-China-via-Atlético route. Jackson Martínez did so, too, going down as one of the biggest flops in club history.

After joining from Porto in the summer of 2015, it was immediately clear that the Colombian forward would take some time to adapt to the team’s style. But it proved a lot more difficult than anyone thought and he lost all confidence. “He believed in God more than in himself,” one anonymous teammate told the Spanish press at the time.

So, when the chance to actually make a profit on the struggling player arrived from China just halfway through that 2015/16 season, Atleti took it. Jackson departed for Guangzhou Evergrande and recently retired.

16. Diego Alonso

Age: 47

Atlético first-team appearances: 39

Atlético goals: 22

After transferring from Gimnasia La Plata in Argentina to Valencia in 2000, Alonso’s most significant impression in Spain came during a loan spell with then second tier Atletico Madrid in 2001/02. It’s safe to say the Atleti we know today wouldn’t be the same without Alonso’s impact at the club. He top scored in that Segunda División season with 22 goals as Atleti finished first, and they haven’t looked back since. Now manager of Uruguay, he will be hoping to produce similar wonders at this year’s World Cup.

Article produced in partnership by La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown