Lessons from Atletico Madrid for Tottenham

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Image: SpursWeb

Introduction

In the previous article of this series I looked at why Spurs gambled on youth, and there were a lot of reasons why it made sense. Unable to compete with the financial clout of the bigger clubs a strategy of trying to discover young players would allow us the chance to get in very good players. And with very good players you had a chance of winning. But there is a problem with this: Atletico Madrid. With a budget far smaller than ours, and a transfer policy that does not go for youth, they managed to win La Liga and were within 2 minutes of being European Champions.

What, if anything, can we learn from them?

The Competition

The first thing to mention is that winning La Liga is a bit easier than winning the Premier League. This is not because the standard of the league is lower. If we were to use the Champions League as a yardstick then the English club dominance has ended. From the ‘04/’05 season to the ‘11/’12 season of the 16 teams in the final 8 were English, but there have been none in the last 2 years (and only 1 to have made it to the QFs).

Rather it is because the number of other strong teams is far reduced. For Atletico Madrid to win La Liga they have to beat just 2 other championship contenders. They are both very good contenders, admittedly, but they are just two all the same. In the Premier League for Spurs to be champions they would have to beat at least 5 (6 if you include Everton) competitors. Individually this is realistic. In the last 5 seasons we have finished above Manchester City (1), Liverpool (4), Chelsea (1), Everton (4), and most recently Manchester Utd (1). Arsenal is the only team that we did not finish above, but even then the gap was 1 point on 2 occasions.

That’s not to say that I thought Atletico were lucky; they were clearly very good and their cup runs are further evidence of this. But for Spurs to replicate what they did would require more.

The Players

Here is the Atletico Madrid squad for last season. I’ve only included players that had at least 5 appearances. Stats have been taken from: http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/atletico-madrid/startseite/verein/13

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Player Age

The squad has an average age of 27, 3 years more than the average age of the players that Spurs have bought over the last 2 seasons. In the last game of the season Atletico’s starting XI had an average age of 27.7 years; in their last game Spurs’ was 25.0 years. So do we lack experience? It is all well and good having a lot of young quality players on the pitch, but do you need some experience around them?

Atletico would certainly suggest that you do, especially in defensive areas. Experience counts for a lot when defending, as the ability to read the game and position yourself correctly is as important as being able to run fast or pass well. The most experienced defender that Spurs have is Michael Dawson, who certainly splits the opinion of fans. A very accomplished penalty box defender, he has the ability to read the game for blocking shots and crosses as well as having a good aerial presence his lack of speed means that he is ill suited to maintaining a high line.

This is especially true as our young attacking full backs are often caught out of position in the transition, and this results in our CBs getting isolated and over run. We either need to play a deeper line or play full backs that have better positional awareness and ability to read the game, or we need to play with a true defensive midfielder (Sandro or Capoue) that can either break up the attack at source or cover as a third defender. Atletico’s full backs are not the world’s best, but an extra 5 years of experience makes them much better readers of the game.

Player Fees

The other striking thing is the lack of money that Atletico have paid on transfer fees. Their entire squad was purchased for just £64m; that’s about the same as we paid for Soldado, Lamela, and Eriksen. So how are they able to have forged a title winning team from such a small amount of money?

The first thing to note is that it is not from their youth system. Only 3 of their players can be said to have come through, Koke (directly), and Costa plus Garcia (via years of loans). All of their other players were at least 23 upon purchase. The second thing to note is the number of free players; 3 were brought in without needing to pay a transfer fee whilst another two were there on loan. Most notable of this is Thibaut Courtois, who played all but 1 of their games.

This loan arrangement is often seen as the endeavours of lower placed teams, ones that lacking the financial clout to bring in a lot of quality will instead promise to give vital experience to players coming up through the youth systems of top clubs that have a lot of potential and skill but are not yet trusted to break through into the first team of their parent club. But it is becoming more fashionable for larger clubs to trade players to fill weaknesses in their squads on a temporary basis. Atletico needed a top class goalkeeper, and Chelsea needed to blood Cech’s successor. Everton in particular have been very clever last season, securing Lukaku and Deulofeu.

So this is another option that we should consider open to us; pride be damned. If we are unable to secure the transfer of a position that we are in need of filling or covering then we should look to see if there is a loan option available.

Player Service

The back line for Spurs had a lack of experience playing alongside each other. Dawson and Vertonghen were starting their 2nd year of partnership to be joined by the freshly purchased Chiriches and the freshly uninjured Kaboul. Outside of them were Kyle Walker and the freshly returned Rose. This will have caused a lack of stability, as the most important aspect of defence is your starting position. But starting poisiton is relative to your team-mates; if you are in the right position and the other 3 defenders are in the wrong position then effectively you are also in the wrong position as you need to adjust to others.

Atletico’s main back 4 consisted of Godin and Miranda at CB, with Luis and Juanfran outside of them. All of those players had been at the club for at least 3 years, and were all pushing towards a century of appearances alongside each other. I think it is right that we look to bring better defenders in, but we must accept that stability is also a key factor. We’re crying out for a proper left back, but we should be careful about pushing anything else too far.

For example Dawson is an aging player, and quality wise is not as good as we want. But selling an experienced defender that has had a lot of playing time with those around him seems to be reckless if the fee we receive is only going to be a few million. Better would be to have him as backup, someone that could step in if a first choice defender is injured and be up to speed right away. As Atletico (and many international teams at the world cup) have shown, you don’t need your best players in that position.

A similar claim can be made about the midfielders. With all the chopping and changing between systems, with many players being played out of position, and a totally different style under two very different managers, it is perhaps not surprising that so often last season our team played like strangers. Tiago and Mendes have a solid 3 years of playing alongside each other, and it shows.

So the problem with bringing more people in is not a lack of Premier League experience (which I feel is to unfairly promote the strength of the Premier League over others), but a lack of experience playing alongside each other. And the only way to rectify that is to get players regularly playing alongside each other.

Top Scorer

We often talk about how our players need to score more. Dembele, Chadli, and Lennon should all be scoring more goals. Whilst this is true it hides the most crucial aspect; you need a top scorer that can just bang in a load of goals and you don’t need more than 2 or 3 other people to get regularly on the score sheet.

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Other than the 2 CFs, Atletico only had a couple of players chip in with any notable contribution to goals. At 9 (Garcia) and 6 (Koke), this is not too dissimilar to Spurs’ efforts of 7 (Eriksen) and 6 (Paulinho). Spurs are probably a little ahead there as well on a per appearance basis. The difference comes from the main strikers. Even Adebayor at 11 from 21 falls way behind Costa on 27 from 35. Now there is a tendency in La Liga for the bigger clubs to have their best strikers score more often than you see in the Premier League (usually because they get multiple goals against the lower placed teams), but even so you need to invest heavily in a striker that can get the goals.

The Premier League top scorers over the last 5 seasons were Suarez (31), RVP (26), RVP (30), Berbatov/Tevez (20), and Drogba (29). I don’t think that we played Soldado in the correct way last season, but it would be an awful risk to just assume that he would come good this season. Similarly Adebayor goes hot and cold, and even last season where he would probably be rated as having done pretty well didn’t see him get the goal return that he should be.

Conclusion

So to summarise, here are the lessons we can take from Atletico Madrid:

  • You don’t need to spend a fortune throughout the team to be successful
  • However you do need a top quality CF who will get at least 20 a season
  • Older, wiser, defenders are just as important as young fast ones
  • Stability is a key factor, especially in defence and central midfield

So we should look to sign a good centre back about the same age as Vertonghen to form a central partnership between them. Chiriches should also be kept to build stability whilst Dawson retained in a backup role for his experience. That means that we should take advantage of Kaboul’s injury free period to sell.

For left back we should look to sign an older player with experience. Although it is always tempting to try and steal the next hot prospect from under the noses of our competitors, we need the experience to steady the back line.

We need to pick our main central midfielders and stick with them in those positions. They need to learn how to play alongside each other. If we see Eriksen being the man to control the tempo of our game (as Modric used to) then we need to get him off the wing and bring him central, and play him next to the same players (probably Sandro and Dembele in a midfield 3). We need to be firm about the players that are surplus to requirements and sell them. Who they are will depend on the system Pochettino employs. If we play a DPC system then it is Paulinho and Bentaleb. If we play a double pivot then it is Dembele and Sigurdsson.

We need a top quality striker. Adebayor is too inconsistent to perform and should be sold. Soldado may come good if played correctly but it is too much of a gamble to not bring in someone else. If this player cannot be bought then we should look to loan them in. This is where the majority of our transfer kitty should be invested.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. A great article, with some interesting points.

    Reading the part about experienced defenders, I couldn't help but think back to two of Spurs best defensive performances of recent memory, the two games vs AC Milan a couple of years ago. In both of those games, we had a back line of Corluka, Gallas, Dawson & BAE. Woodgate played for 30 mins as a sub in the San Siro.

    This illustrates your point very well about having defenders who can defend in the team first and foremost, as opposed to players who are picked for what they offer going forward.

  2. what a fucking stupid article , I am sorry but how bloody naive is it to suggest La Liga has less contenders ? typical British egotistical view of the rest of Europe, do you even understand how good Club Universidad de Chile are ? have you slept through Costa Rica matches ? we are shit at Football in this nation and the likes of Our Club and it's fans are largely the main reason for it.

    Athletico Madrid and all this waffle you write is down to one thing and one thing only, THE MANAGER !!!, here at Spurs we would rip seats out and boo if we played like Mourinho and Simeone, 99% of Spurs fans would want Kyle Walker over Gary Doherty all day long, but I know who George Graham had playing better out of the two, Spurs fans are idiots, (yep me included), we want to win things being easy to play against, and it don't happen, don't foolishly believe the tippy tappy Football at Barca was special, it was Puyol who was special, Puyol the no more defender who made Barca quality, Puyol the no more defender who made Spain quality, Carvalho who made Terry special, Terry who makes Cahill special, Ledley who made Dawson special, take away the defensive leader and you have nothing, precisely why Wenger nicked Judas, without Adams Arsescum were nothing, always start at the back and build from there, until fans at the lane change their mindset we will always fail,

    Who really doubted that Chelsea would go to Anfield and get the deserved win last season ? I didn't !!
    the only Spurs side in my lifetime that would have done that was under George Graham, organised, no coincidence the scum won a title under him at Anfield doing exactly the same.. all managers (even Wenger) start with quality at the back, I wouldn't call anyone quality at Spurs at the back, 2 absolute quality defenders in the last 43 years of my life, Ledley King and Richard Gough.. the rest are typical Spurs defenders,,ball watching hopeless clowns.. you need a Simeone or a Graham, Mourinho to organise average players into quality.. Levy won't ever do that though as he runs the club and decent managers want to be the boss.. oh well another season with Walker waving his arms about and ball watching.. lovely !!! , but it aint nothing to do with Bilbao being average fella !!

    • Thanks for the reply. At no point did I say that I thought La Liga was a worse league than the Premiership, in fact I stated that I did not believe that the standard of the league was lower. You might have been able to make an attempt at that claim 5 years ago when there were a lot of Premier League teams getting to the late stages of the Champions League, but certainly not any more. La Liga and the Bundesliga are definitely ahead of the Premier League.

      But the difficulty of winning a league is not down to how strong the overall league is, but rather the relative strength of your club to other clubs. In La Liga the strength of the league is more highly concentrated into fewer clubs, primarily Real Madrid and Barcelona. In the Premier League it is more wide spread.

      What I mean by this is that in the last 30 years the Spanish Champions have been either Real Madrid or Barcelona except on 5 occasions (Valencia x2, Atletico x2, Deportivo x1). In contrast the Premier League has had 8 different winners, and outside of Manchester Utd (13 wins) the next best is Arsenal on 5. That shows that there are more clubs competing at a similar level, even if that level is lower than La Liga.

      Club Universidad de Chile are a good side, and Costa Rica have been sensational. I agree with you that the manager is a main focus of this; how teams with players that play in such relatively low leagues (and by that I mean lower divisions of European leagues) can look so good up against the media darlings is a testament to the ability of those managers. A case in point is the Chilean player Gonzo Jara, who recently played for Nottingham Forest and was solid but not sensational, looking right at home against Brazil.

      I also agree that you have to build from the back, and this is where I think experience is important. I don't think that young players like Rose or Walker help at all with that (it is only Walker's great speed that allows him to recover so many of his positional errors). But I didn't want this article to just be a 'Simeone is good' / 'AVB & Sherwood are bad' fest, but rather look more in depth at how it was achieved.

      • I do take your point but in the last 37 years Man United and Liverpool have won 24 titles between them ? I do admit Spain is a league dominated by the big 2, The prem is now boring, we all know who will finish where and it is pointless watching it, much like the champ lge until February.
        I am in the minority I love watching Italian Football, for the exact opposite reasons you give about Walker and Rose, I find the prem is very much over hyped and the standard just isn't that good, Wayne Routledge at Swansea ? Bloody Hell sooner watch Alessio Cerci of a side like Torino all day long, In fact I would love Cerci down the Spurs but we are second rate cheap skates in this league , he will go to the Gooners !

        All the Best Fella.

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