WHEN YOU THINK OF THE FINEST LA LIGA STRIKERS over the past 20 years, you would include the Real Madrid trio of Raúl, Ronaldo and Morientes. Then Kluivert, Eto’o and Suárez from Barcelona. A few others would certainly make the grade – Diego Tristán of Deportivo and David Villa. However, aside from the obvious El Clásico duopoly, Atlético Madrid have been especially blessed in this department over this period.
Torres, Forlán and Agüero; Falcao, Diego Costa and Griezmann: it’s a constant conveyor belt of acceleration, dynamism and goals. It has become a massive part of the club’s DNA – something that they are now known for. All of these strikers could make a serious claim to be among the best in the world at some point in time during their Atlético years. So what is it about the smaller, less glamorous of the two Madrid clubs that let their forwards succeed so often?
It is a club that has always had a strong South American connection; from Rubén Ayala in the 1970s, to Maxi Rodríguez in the mid-2000s, to with Luis Perea, the defender who amassed the most appearances for the club as a non-Spanish player from 2004 to 2012. There was also Diego Simeone. His first spell with the club was from 1994 until 1997. In 1996 he was part of the team that achieved the La Liga and Copa del Rey double. He then returned from success in Italy to play with Atlético from 2003 to 2005. In his last two years there he saw the rise of prominent young striker, Fernando Torres.
El Niño is one of Atleti’s favourite sons. He worked his way up through the youth ranks of the club and made his debut in Spain Segunda División in 2001. A week later, he opened his goalscoring account with a late back-post header against Albacete. He then continued to play the starring role in an often-struggling team, captaining them by the age of 19.
Many were hoping Torres’ top performances as a strong yet agile striker with a lethal early finish would propel him to be Spain’s next great striker after Raúl. He kept improving and impressed many with his link-up play and ability to play up front alone. He was also catching the eye at international tournaments – a shining light in the midst of Spain’s disappointing Euro 2004 campaign.
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Torres was only used as an impact sub in the first two games against Russia and Greece, before ousting an in-form Fernando Morientes in the group decider against Iberian rivals Portugal. Two years later in Germany, he netted three goals at the 2006 World Cup. Already on the radar of every big club, unfortunately for the red, white and blue half of Madrid, it seemed only a matter of time before he moved on. Finally, in July 2007, after regular summer flirtations with the Premier League, Rafael Benítez sealed the Spaniard’s signature for Liverpool. Torres completed a £20 million move to Merseyside and went on to form a telepathic relationship with Steven Gerrard.
The pragmatism of the board at the Vicente Calderón was evident to see in the way they handled Torres’ departure. The summer before, in 2006, they started laying the foundations for the likelihood of their star man moving on. They signed a 19-year-old striker from Independiente, who many described as the new Romário – one Sergio Agüero. Then, when Torres finally was sold, they secured Diego Forlán’s signature. The player, who struggled at Old Trafford for three years, went on to win the Pichichi on Spain’s east coast with Villarreal, forming an era-defining partnership for the club with Juan Román Riquelme.
Forlán and Agüero’s partnership worked perfectly. The Argentine was young and had a lot to learn about the European game, and who better to teach him than a fellow Spanish-speaking South American who’d had his fair share of difficulties with adapting on the continent. It was brilliant planning by the Rojiblancos board.
In 2007, Diego Forlán was fast becoming one of the most feared strikers in Europe. He displayed dynamism all around the penalty area with a habitual ability to score from long range with both feet. At their peak, Forlán and Agüero wreaked havoc for defences in La Liga and the UEFA Cup. One of their best displays as a partnership was in the 4-2 demolition of Barcelona at the Vicente Calderón in March 2008.
Forlán was the perfect foil for Agüero’s unpredictability and burst of acceleration as the Argentine struck two and set up one. During the following season, Pep Guardiola’s first in charge at the Camp Nou, Atlético once again beat La Blaugrana. This time a 4-3 win, Forlán and Agüero were again mesmerising, each netting twice. Forlán’s first goal, in particular, was one of real quality.
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He received the ball midway inside Barça’s half and, with Carles Puyol and the rest of the defence back-peddling, he unleashed an outward curling shot with his left foot. The ball looped past Victor Valdés’ right side and into the top corner as the deep nets of the Calderón bulged. In their four years together they amassed 142 goals for Atlético, as well as proving instrumental in bringing Champions League football back to the club after 11 years. They were also the standout performers in Atlético’s UEFA Cup triumph of 2010.
The tide changed in 2011 as Agüero joined the revolution at Manchester City and Diego Forlán moved to a declining Internazionale. This paved the way for Colombian Radamel Falcao to join from Porto, joining one Diego Costa who had been re-signed to the club after a promising season at Rayo Valladolid.
In only two seasons at Atlético, Falcao’s reputation grew ten-fold. His change of direction in the box and the ability score with finesse or force made him the best poacher in Europe. He was yet another player who scored a remarkable goal against Barcelona for Los Rojiblancos. This time, however, it was at the Camp Nou.
Lionel Messi was dispossessed in Atlético’s half by Diego Costa, who swiftly moved the ball to an advancing Falcao. The Colombian swept past Sergio Busquets with the outside of his right boot and proceeded with a blistering curved run towards goal, with Barcelona’s high line trickling behind. With the goal ahead, he opted for a nonchalant chip over the top of Valdés to score the best visiting goal at the Camp Nou that season. The way in which he married unpredictability with a delicate finish was spectacular; it was a goal that summed up Falcao at the time perfectly.
The lure of bigger wages and more glamorous surroundings dictated Falcao’s move to the province of Monte Carlo by joining Monaco in 2013. However, the wheels kept turning for the conveyor belt of forwards at Atlético. This time Diego Costa, who first joined the club’s ranks in 2007, stepped forward. The addition of an ageing David Villa was certainly a help, but it was Costa who grabbed – sometimes literally – La Liga by the scruff of the neck in the 2013/14 season with his 27 league goals leading them to the title. Under the guidance of Simeone, Atletico became a club that finally realised it’s staggering potential.
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Costa’s introduction to English football was in the Champions League semi-final first leg between Atlético and Chelsea. With seven minutes on the clock, a throw-in from the right-hand side reached the Brazil-born striker as John Terry came in from behind with a firm clearance. Costa immediately turned around and barged the defender’s chest. However, this wasn’t just any defender – this was John Terry, the last of his kind. It didn’t matter to Costa. It was a signal to José Mourinho’s Chelsea that even though they might be playing the underdogs, it would not be an easy passage to the final.
This proved to be true as the game ended 0-0. In the second leg, Costa was instrumental, scoring one and inadvertently assisting another. It solidified Mourinho’s thoughts about Costa being the missing piece to his Chelsea jigsaw. When he moved to Chelsea that summer, one would assume the striking prowess at the club might cool off, and it might have been the case had it not been for Antoine Griezmann, now amongst the world’s most feared and in-demand players.
So why do Atlético’s strikers flourish? One of the common denominators over this period has been the South American connection. At a club like Atletico, where the freedom to play your game and fire from within is cherished, they have been given the chance to adapt to the European game in front of loyal, passionate supporters. The managers have also played a strong part; from Luis Aragonés and Javier Aguirre to Quique Sánchez Flores and Simeone, they have all been adept at protecting their strikers, giving them the confidence to play their natural game, and setting up their teams to be solid behind them.
Tactically, Atlético have also been an anomaly at the top end of the game. Unlike most other sides they’ve played two up front for much of this period, giving strikers a chance to build partnerships and work together. Instead of one man roaming alone – like Torres did for much of his first spell at the club – managers since have stuck to the trusted two-man strikeforce, and never was that better seen than in the days of Forlán and Agüero. Additionally, the counter-attacking style of play, particularly away from home, has benefitted their forwards in this period, many of whom like to burst into space and stretch the defence. The way Costa bullied defenders and ran in behind the was the perfect example for Atlético in 2013/14.
Every club has a unique identity in football. Indeed, it has now become such an integral facet of the globalisation of the sport – a unique selling point. It could be the Galácticos of Real Madrid, the tiki-taka of Barcelona or the Total Football of Ajax. For Atletico Madrid, it’s their unforgiving style of play under Diego Simeone, one which marries defensive stability with world-class strikers, given the freedom to express themselves within the remit of the team’s tactical plan. This has enabled the club to build a reputation as the foremost hotbed of striking talent in Europe.