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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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