When Atletico won the league in 2013-2014, they were praised for fighting off Spain’s big two, Barcelona and Real Madrid. They had an inferior playing squad and a smaller budget than their rivals. Recall they went into the final day needing to get a point at the Camp Nou to win the league and achieved it courtesy of a 1-1 draw. That same season, Atletico also lost the Champions League finals to Real Madrid, whom they would meet again in the finals 2 years later, but suffered the same fate. Last season, Atletico won the league once again after cantering to a huge lead early in the season with both big clubs struggling to find consistency.
Safe to say Atletico Madrid are no longer the underdogs, no longer Europe’s feeder club for strikers and goalkeepers, and they no longer work off a paltry budget. This is evidenced by their $120 million purchase of Joao Felix from Benfica, something that would’ve been unthinkable just a few years ago. Their triumph in 2013-14 saw the departure of key players, including David Villa, Diego Costa, and Thibaut Courtois, and resulted in them finishing 16 points behind eventual champions Barcelona the season after. This time around, Atletico has retained the core of their championship team, with Saul Niguez being the most noticeable absence, and if the last few years are anything to go by, he won’t be missed.
Atletico’s rivals Barcelona have been in a sporting, financial, and institutional crisis, having lost Lionel Messi for free, retaining Ronald Koeman as a coach (who most Barca fans would’ve liked to see replaced), and lacking the finances to improve their team significantly. Real Madrid, on the other hand, has not been spending as heavily over the last few years. That has meant Los Blancos is left with a group of talented but inconsistent young players, big-money flops like Eden Hazard and aging key players. Madrid struggled for goals last season with Benzema burdened with goal-scoring duties, and it is expected that that issue may continue this season as their only signing in the off-season was highly touted central midfielder Eduardo Camavinga. Comparatively speaking, Real Madrid are not as financially down-stricken as Barcelona given their audacious but failed bid of $180 million for PSG’s Kylian Mbappe.
Atletico sold key players for big money in between their two most recent title triumphs. However, they sold because the price was right, rather than being desperately in need of cash. Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona, Lucas Hernandez to Bayern Munich, Rodrigo to Manchester City, Thomas Partey to Arsenal, and in each instance, Atletico Madrid was able to rebuild and not lose too much ground in the table against their rivals. A plan was in place each time.
While still having debts to finance like any club, those in charge of Atletico have done well to refinance their debt by forging partnerships with investors such as China’s Wanda Group, Mexico’s Carlos Slim, or Israeli businessman Idan Ofer’s Quantum Pacific, while still keeping hold of the reins of the club. Atletico have also played politics well in the best interest of their club, staying on the good side of Spanish and European football’s governing bodies and acknowledging the will of their fans. This is demonstrated by their apology and withdrawal from the failed super league attempt by Europe’s big clubs, unlike their Spanish rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, who are still clinging to the idea of the tournament.
Real and Barca also came out strongly against La Liga’s deal with CVC Capital Partners, while Atletico were firmly behind the plan. Such maneuvering has afforded Atletico the cash injection needed to keep investing in the team through the summer. In contrast, Barca’s refusal to accept the deal made it impossible to renew Lionel Messi’s contract and register their new signings. The latter only happened after their team captains agreed to huge wage cuts.
Over the summer, Atletico signed Rodrigo De Paul for $35 million, in what can be described as sort of a bargain given his displays for Udinese last season and his brilliant Copa America campaign. The 27-year-old provided the assist for Di Maria’s game-winning goal in the Copa America final with a perfect long pass from deep in midfield, showcasing his range and precision. De Paul will add lots of steel and technicality to a midfield that already boasts Koke and Marcos Llorente, who was easily the best midfielder in La Liga last season. Atleti also signed up exciting Brazilian attacker Matheus Cunha for a reported fee of €25 million from Hertha Berlin. The biggest move this summer for Atletico was undoubtedly re-signing Antoine Greizman from Barcelona on deadline day. The deal sees Diego Simeone reunited with one of Atltico’s leading goal scorers in league play on a two-year loan deal with an obligation to buy for €40 million. A brilliant deal when you remember that Atletico sold Greizman to Barcelona for $120 million just two years ago.
Atletico now has Luis Suarez, Joao Felix, Matheus Cunha, Angel Correa, and Antoine Greizmann as attacking options to complement midfielders Thomas Lemar, Yannick Carrasco, Marcos Llorente, Rodrigo De Paul, and Koke. Under Simeone, Atletico have been known to be very defensive, and that is due in part to always having excellent defenders, as they currently do with Mario Hermoso, Stefan Savic, Renan Lodi, Kieran Tripper, and Jose Maria Gimenez. Real Madrid struggle to find goals and Barcelona struggle to keep goals out, while Atletico have the perfect balance of both and a squad that is arguably more complete than all their rivals.
Transfer business aside, Atletico also renewed the contract of their beloved coach, Diego Simeone, until June 2024. His salary remained at €20 million (after-tax), keeping him as the highest-paid coach in world football. His entire coaching staff also signed new deals on the same date. The club also tied down Marcos Llorente, Stefan Savic and José Maria Giménez to long-term deals and aim to do the same with Jan Oblak and Angel Correa next.
Atletico loves the underdog tag and enjoys making use of them throughout their campaigns in the league and in Europe. However, this time around, make no mistake, Atletico are the title favorites for La Liga due to being Spain’s most stable, resourceful and strategic club in Spain at the moment. One should also not count them out in Europe, as they have the squad to go toe to toe with Europe’s best. It will take a lot of work and consistency to dethrone Simeone and his players, who have always shown they will leave everything on the field for their coach and fans.