We were overexuberant in a uniquely social media way, but we did predict back in September that Luis Suarez’s move to Atletico Madrid would win Diego Simeone’s side the league this season. Atleti needed goals; Suarez scored 198 goals in 283 matches over his six years at Barcelona. But rarely in soccer does one plus one actually equal two, with a high profile signing working out exactly as we imagined. Suarez currently has a league-leading 16 goals in 17 matches with his new side. Atleti also lead the league with 51 points, up five points over second place Real Madrid with two games in hand. And considering Suarez’s goals and the middling struggles of the opposition, there is already an inevitability about this season’s title race. Has soccer always been this straightforward and simple?
But it’s not just that Suarez scores goals, but in the how and when. Down 1-0 against Celta Vigo, Suarez tapped into an open net right before halftime to level the match. Suarez then gave his side a brief lead in the second half with another tap-in goal open in front of net. The similar movements capture the signature Suarez goal at age 34: the ball begins in between the lines, gets played out to a half space, and crossed back inside for the simple tap-in. The game wasn’t the first time this season where he single-handedly won Atleti points: he scored both goals in a 2-1 win over Eibar, and the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Getafe. His goals have given Atleti nine extra points. Atleti’s 16 wins thus far almost match last season’s win total of 18.
Suarez’s 16 goals have also come from just 20 shots on target. He does have a highlight reel in him, but the simple tap-in are replicable and scalable. Opposition managers, defenders, and keepers know that Suarez is aiming for that open space, and yet, he still finds a way. His genius is in the journey to the destination, the movement - or lack of. It’s not so much that he frees himself inside of the box as it is that he finds himself free, especially within the intensity and frenetic energy of a match. It’s in drawing a questionable penalty in the 89th minute of 1-1 match, then hitting a panenka to win. The gamesmanship, ruthlessness, and the skill are wrapped into one.
But we weren’t alone in our predictions, and rarely do you hear other players speak so openly about a transaction. Lionel Messi immediately understood its significance, especially to a title rival. Iago Aspas called the move a “big error” by Barcelona. Jan Oblak said he was surprised Barcelona let him leave considering his goalscoring. Angel Correa rhetorically asked, “how can you let a No. 9 who wins games for you like Suarez slip through your fingers?”
Atleti and Simeone were opportunistic. There is something, not quite ironic but more happenstance, that the club infamous for spending nine figures on searching for the perfect center forward throughout last decade had one fall to them without any planning, for free (there is also the historical precedence of David Villa leaving Barcelona for free in 2013 and winning the league with Atleti the following season). His impact simplifies and reduces the game to its very basics: as much as we argue and debate tactics, matches and titles come down to the goalscorers.
Suarez’s influence is not only in the goals, but also in how he forced Simeone to change Atleti’s shape. We wondered every season whether Simeone would finally move away from his defensive 4-4-2 setup to something more expansive. Atleti still have the usual stingiest defense in La Liga this season, but they also have the second highest goal total following a move to a 3-5-2 formation that accommodates Suarez’s aging legs. Maybe we were asking the wrong question this whole time. It wasn’t about whether Simeone would change his style to emphasize his attack, but in asking what player was worthy of Simeone changing his style for.
The idea of Suarez playing for Atleti a year ago seemed far-fetched. The Platonic ideal of a Simeone-style striker was something in the mold of a young Diego Costa or Antoine Griezmann, a player who could chase down long balls and create goals on their own in transition. But this current side features two distinct changes based on Suarez’s ability. Philosophically, Atleti play further up the field to lessen the Uruguayan’s running. The new shape also adds two midfielders to relieve the attacking responsibility off the strikers.
“The team helps him to be at his best, which is scoring,” said Simeone about reshaping his formation around Suarez.
And with three centerbacks and one defensive midfielder, Simeone gets to maintain his defensive structure. The contrast shows how difficult it was for Atleti to generate goals in their previous 442 formation with two strikers and two wingers tasked with creating and finishing chances, a burden that dwindled into a series of winning one on one battles. But formations are only a means of maximizing a team’s potential. If Atleti’s best chance to win the league comes with creating chances for Suarez, then a shape will build around that principle.
Plus, we all got what we wanted. Analysts were proven right that Simeone needed to update his style, while Simeone could argue that he’s never been able to work with a striker like Suarez. With Atleti topping the table, we’ll agree to split the difference.
“Until we reach the end of the season, the teams will not be compared,” downplayed Simeone in comparing this current side and the 2014 title-winning group. Though in acknowledging the topic, he is indirectly addressing its possibilities.
He’s brought out more of the typical coaching phrases in recent weeks, of how Atleti need to take it match by match. His side were on pace to break 100 points halfway through the season, a mark only hit twice by Real Madrid and Barcelona last decade (Atleti have never won more than 90 points in a season). It was only two years ago when Simeone appeared to accept the realism of La Liga’s structure, saying that it is not a failure to finish second to Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Simeone continues to unlock new achievements in his tenth season, including beating Barcelona in the league for the first time. He was already considered among the best managers in the world with or without another league trophy, but this season adds another layer. The change in formation normalizes Simeone from his outlier status of a defensive 4-4-2 formation. It wasn’t out of a deeper philosophical need as we liked to impart, but out of pragmatism, a byproduct of giving his side the best chance to win a match. We’ve been writing for years about whether we’ve found the end of Simeone due to his lack of adjustments. All Simeone needed was a reason to change.