Some may argue that the 17 May 2014 was the finest day in Atletico Madrid’s history. Los Rojiblancos secured the draw away at Barcelona which gave them their first La Liga title for 20 years. A week later they had the chance to create more history when they faced city rivals Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
However, Atleti lost the match 4-1, a scoreline which does not paint a fair picture of the game. To make matter worse, talismanic striker Diego Costa, who started the game with injury, had to be substituted in the first 10 minutes. It would be his final game for Atleti.
Costa was sold to Chelsea following the World Cup, and teammates Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois joined the Spanish striker at Stamford Bridge. With a huge chunk of the team’s spine now sold, many Atleti fans asked the question, ‘What now? How do we replace Costa?’
Atleti have been here before. Losing their start striker and wondering how they will replace him; Fernando Torres, Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero and Radamal Falcao have all come and gone in recent seasons. So this wasn’t a new situation Atleti found themselves in.
Let’s not forget how important Costa was to Simeone’s side. We’re talking about a player who came third in the La Liga goal-scoring chart behind Ronaldo and Messi. Costa scored all types of goals that season; long-range worldies, poacher’s tap-ins, overhead kicks. You name it, he scored it.
Costa symbolised Simeone’s footballing philosophy; aggressive, strong, prepared to do anything in the name of victory. Costa’s departure would leave such a big hole to fill in this Atleti side.
Simeone quickly signed Bayern Munich forward Mario Mandzukic as Costa’s replacement, and so far this campaign, Mandzukic has done a stellar job.
Mandzukic is no mug. He’s well known across the footballing globe for his goal-scoring prowess. Tall and good in the air, Mandzukic quickly adapted to Spanish football, even if he isn’t a like-for-like Costa replacement.
The glaring difference between these strikers is pace. Mandzukic doesn’t run the channels like Costa did for Atleti. That doesn’t mean Mandzukic is slow, because he isn’t, he’s just not as mobile as his Spanish predecessor.
Due to his height and strength in the air, Mandzukic offers Atleti something different in attack. Instead of pinging balls wide like last season, Atleti are now more direct with their build-up play. This has allowed Mandzukic to win aerial battles, or get the ball down and hold it up, allowing the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Koke to come into the attack.
Over 90% of Mandzukic’s 14 goals for Atleti so far this season have been with one-touch finishes. This shows the Croatian’s poachers instinct, whilst also highlighting the change in Atleti’s play this season.
A similarity of the 2 strikers is their ability to press high up the pitch. This is a trait which Simeone demands across his whole team, starting from the top. Atleti’s pressing game gained them huge plaudits last season, and Mandzukic has had no difficulty playing this way. He was of course an integral part of the famous Bayern Munich treble winning team in 2012-13 who, under Jupp Heynckes, deployed a very similar pressing style.
The burden that Mandzukic will be carrying as Costa’s replacement will weigh less now that Los Rojiblancos have resigned Fernando Torres.