In the past 20 seasons of Spanish La Liga football, there were only five seasons where a team other than Real Madrid and Barcelona had won the title. As such, the La Liga is cleverly portrayed as a fight between two lions and a flock of sheep; Madrid and Barcelona dominate while the other teams simply act as their prey. However, the recent rise of Athletico Madrid – with how they stunned everybody by snatching the title last season and their respectable run to the UEFA Champions League finals – defined the resurgence of the other La Liga teams.
The team currently most likely to challenge Madrid and Barcelona is the one that did exactly that last year: the defending champions, Athletico Madrid. Their rise in football is incredible, especially as they were languishing in the second division of Spanish Football just 12 years ago. Their recent success – which also include the Europa League, the Copa del Rey, and the Super Cup – can be attributed to a few things: their team effort, shrewd business, and most importantly, their inspirational coach Diego Simeone.
Athletico is known to be a team without a real standout star: the team responsibilities are divided evenly among all members of a team. A handful of starters could rightfully challenge to be called the most important player last season. Courtois developed into one of the world’s greatest goalkeepers following his influential blocks, Diego Costa did the work that earned them the points by knocking in 36 goals in total, Gabi completed the more dirty work and inspired his team throughout as captain, and the backline of Felipe Luis, Miranda, Godin, and Juanfran was near impenetrable and offered loads of attacking options as well. As such, their success was a team effort. This comes down to how most members of the team has been with the club for quite some time. They have 21 homegrown players in recent seasons, and most of their starting lineup has been with the club for several years, which makes playing with each other extremely easy.
Business made by the club has also guided Athletico into the right direction. The only example for their keen sense of business can be seen with how they deal with their center forwards. Athletico has always been famous for their world class strikers: Torres, Forlan, Aguero, Falcao, Diego Costa. They have all gone through the Athletico team sheet and have established themselves as one of the best. Due to the club’s relative financial weakness compared to other top clubs, they were sometimes forced to sell their strongest players, which usually were their forwards. However, they did not take time to replace them. Lose a world class striker? Buy another one to fit right in. They even made huge profits off the net transfers, with a huge part of it coming from the sale of Torres and Diego Costa.
Most credits, though, must go to the efforts of head manager Diego Simeone. He has built this team from the start, and has implemented his football style deep into the team. That football style can be defined in one word: intensity. Defenders position themselves perfectly and pick the right timing to storm forward to influence the attack. Midfielders are dynamic and run the game in both their own half and the opposition half. Attackers are hungry for the ball and seize every opportunity they can lay their hands on. When defending, all players work together to pressure the ball – in packs of four or five rather than the usual two or three. When attacking, they pour forward, every player except for the two central defenders and the goalkeeper occupy space in the other side of the field. Rather than having a football philosophy, more identifiable with Arsene Wenger or Jose Mourinho, Simeone focuses more on a set of important principles that players must follow. And on the top of that list is intensity. In some cases, Simeone still looks like the captain of the club that he was those many years ago. His no nonsense style of play has transferred into his style as a manager. He dresses in all black, with his hair slicked back with gel, and with an overly masculine beard. No one dared to mess with him then, and no one will today.
There is no doubt that Athletico Madrid has the most popularized success story in the La Liga in recent months. However, the truth is that other top clubs are also rising slowly in their statue. Valencia, backed with the support of billionaire Peter Lim, have made a handful of great transfers this season, including Otamendi, Rodrigo, and Negredo, and look to have a wealthy future comparable to that of Manchester City. Villareal finally seem to have recovered from their relegation a few years ago and have slowly rebuilding the Yellow Submarine. Sevilla has been rising under the La Liga proven Unai Emery and now seem like the team that has been the oldest football club in Spain. It does seem difficult for the La Liga duopoly to break anytime soon, but with the resurgence of other strong La Liga teams, hopefully that time will come eventually.
Photo Credit: LauraHale – Wikipedia.org