This past year must feel like a dream for Atletico Madrid and their supporters. It started on May 17 of last year, when Atletico did the unthinkable and beat Real Madrid 2-1 in the Copa Del Rey Final. Now, a year later, and despite losing Radamel Falcao, the team is only one victory and one tie away from being crowned the Spanish and European Champions. It’s a great story and Atletico Madrid’s current success has been celebrated by not only their fans but by La Liga watchers around the world. The reason? Many believe this team will reform the league by being able to consistently challenge and defeat both Barcelona and Real Madrid, thus putting an end to both clubs recent Spanish supremacy. Unfortunately, that scenario is extremely unlikely.
The first major hurdle for Atletico’s continued success is their ongoing and much discussed massive debt. The problem here is two-fold. First, due to this debt the idea of selling their best players to cash in on their value is usually too enticing (or necessary) to pass up. In the past few years the team has sold Sergio Aguero and Falcao—both world class strikers— and if rumors are to be believed Diego Costa is on his way out as well. All three of those strikers will probably be starting in the upcoming World Cup.
Secondly, due to its debt, the money that Atletico receives from the sale of their top players is used to pay off past loans instead of going towards bringing in new talent. So not only does the team continual lose some of the best players in the league, they also have no money to buy the right players to replace them.
Not many teams can consistently lose their top players year after year while failing to bring in proper replacements and expect their success to continue. So far Atletico has beaten the odds, but if the yearly exodus continues one has to believe that negative results will soon follow.
Another reason to be pessimistic about Atletico’s future is the budget difference between themselves and La Liga’s big boys (Barcelona and Real Madrid). This season Atletico’s budget is approximately 120 million Euros while Barca’s is about 470 million and Real’s is around 517 million (both helped no doubt by their exclusive TV deals worth about 150 million Euros each). Even though a large budget is no guarantee of success, it does have obvious advantages.
Most importantly, it allows for mistakes and encourages taking risks. Barcelona and Real Madrid have the ability to sign high waged players and if they don’t work out or live up to expectations they can easily sell them (or just bench them) for a loss without really sacrificing results or hamstringing the team’s future (the obvious example here is Barcelona’s signing and selling of Ibrahimovic).
Conversely, with their limited budget, one bad signing could not only kill Atletico’s season, it could destroy future seasons as well. Thus, Atletico cannot take risks in their transfers and must look for sure things rather than rolling the dice on a high priced player that may or may not help them.
Although this risk adverse strategy is good business, it makes the team sign players they know will fit into their system rather than possibly risking and damaging their future by signing players that are not guaranteed to succeed at Atletico, but could help the team by changing and improving their tactics. So for Atletico, it is fiscally smarter to buy the player that know will succeed in the current squad even though that player ensures the team’s approach becomes predictable.
If Atletico can’t change up and surprise their opponents by bringing in different styled players it is going to be become easily for teams to play against them and consequently, much harder for them to continue their recent success.
Finally, all these money problems for Atletico Madrid create a blood in the water type scenario. Other teams know that not only can’t Atletico afford to pay the market price for their top players (again unlike Barcelona and Real Madrid) but that the team is happy to sell their stars.
Thus, teams around Europe can trigger release causes and offer the players large wage increases or simply offer Atletico a substantial sum of money for any player they desire. In both cases the same outcome is likely to happen. Atletico lets players leave, lessens its debt, and in all likelihood loses more games.
One last note, everything mentioned above can be applied to Diego Simeone as well. Although it may seem unlikely, if Atletico fail to win the league and the Champions league (or maybe if they win) Simeone may decide it’s time to leave.
He will be a well sought after coach, can demand a high wage and a high transfer budget, and he is smart enough to know that in La Liga, the odds are stacked against him. Simeone has been brilliant at Atletico so it is obvious what his departure would mean to the team.
Regardless of what happens in the next two games Atletico Madrid’s season has been amazing. It would be nice to think that this season was the start of something new; that each year Atletico would challenge not only for the league but for championships in all competitions across the board. Sadly, the facts disagree.
Simply put, Atletico Madrid can’t afford to keep up with Barcelona and Real Madrid and thus, over time will not be able to challenge them on a consistent basis. Atletico Madrid, possible 2014 La Liga title winners and champions of Europe? Yes, but a real threat to the continued domination of Barcelona and Real Madrid? Don’t count on it.