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Why don’t Atletico buy real strikers? Q and A with Into the Calderón

Unai Emery and Diego Simeone go head to head in La Liga

Appearance of the facade of the football stadium ‘Vicente... Photo by Hugo Ortuño/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

I probably shouldn’t actually type this out loud, but out of our La Liga sister sites on the SBN network, Into the Calderón is my favorite. This probably boils down, a lot, to the fact that while Atleti is much bigger than Villarreal, they aren’t a big two side, so as fans we have a lot in common. I sat down with Jeremy Beren (@Jbberen) from their site to talk about our upcoming match with Atlantico* Madrid.

Congrats on the signing of Matheus Cunha, but how does he fit tactically? He seems like another ‘secondary striker’ or inverted wide player that Atleti seems to always sign and then later need a traditional 9 to pair with him.

Thank you! Got the deal over the line myself. (Not really.)

No but Cunha is quite an interesting player despite being a dubious fit along Simeone’s forward line. As you’ve said, he’s not really a 9, though he has played as a center forward for Brazil’s underagers (and scored more goals there than Ronaldinho). However, he’s very skilled and has a lot of flair, and Simeone could use him a couple different ways.

Maybe Cunha really is joining as the intended backup to Luis Suárez...but no player in Europe has scored more goals since April 11 than Ángel Correa, who himself might be developing into a lethal forward. It seems more likely to me, then, that Cunha will instead serve as insurance for João Félix, who is a sensational player but can’t seem to stay on the pitch due to ankle problems. Not saying Simeone can’t still mold Cunha into a good finisher at club level, but Correa is the realistic in-house option to claim that backup 9 role for himself.

The UCL draw was... tough... to say the least for Atleti. We know what Liverpool are and the challenge they present, but how big of a threat do you think Porto and Milan are? Spare me the ‘coach speak’ about respecting opponents, are these teams good enough to beat Atleti to the knockouts?

Yeah, I love this draw. A very fun group we have there. Atlético haven’t performed particularly well in the Champions League in recent years and haven’t gotten past the quarterfinal stage since 2017, so this will be a huge test against three other teams with a lot of European pedigree and history.

A player like Suárez will need to deliver after he failed to score in last season’s competition, and João Félix will need to make this stage all his own. If we’re not close to our best, I don’t expect we will advance — Liverpool aside, Milan have a very good team that hasn’t yet been imploded and Porto are plucky, with several capable attacking options.

I think it will be a challenge for Atlético to qualify, let alone top the group, but once the dust settles I anticipate the colchoneros will be in the knockouts for the eighth time in nine years. The Porto games will be key — take six points there, and they’ll likely qualify.

The Saúl rumors make no sense to me at all. Can you explain why the club is talking about a loan with no buy obligation? Wouldn’t it just be better to have him for depth if you’re going to do that? (Atleti has since decided that, yes, it would be better to just have him for depth.)

Well, reports Friday morning indicated that Saúl is now set to stay, so hooray!

Atlético were interested in finding an external solution for Saúl because he wasn’t happy last season and seemed set on leaving. The club wanted to get his wages (around €8 million net) off the books and, ideally, pocket around €40 million for him.

But considering his form last year (and even before), Saúl wasn’t getting into Thomas Tuchel’s preferred 11 at Chelsea. He wouldn’t have been an optimal option for Manchester United, either, and they badly need a full-time defensive-minded midfielder. A loan move would have ended in more frustration and a more-disgruntled player returning to Spain in 2022.

At Atlético, Saúl is more-or-less guaranteed to have minutes as a pivot or — more recently — as a left wing-back, competing for that role with Yannick Carrasco and Renan Lodi. He’s also a team captain and a fan favorite, despite his fluctuating form. The talent is still in there, somewhere, and Simeone might get another year to try and coax it out of him. If Saúl plays well this season and recoups his value, more teams will be willing to present stronger offers should he still want to leave.

Simeone is always evolving tactically (much more than people realize), what has been added to this year’s side so far from that perspective, especially with the addition of Rodrigo de Paul?

Though his arrival wasn’t really great news for Saúl or for Héctor Herrera, RDP was an awesome signing because he has the ability to deliver that final ball from the center of the park. Whereas Koke and Thomas Lemar tend to play shorter passes and focus on building an attack steadily, De Paul can just ping an incisive pass 25 yards up the pitch and set up an immediate chance to score — just as he did last weekend in the win over Elche. This quality makes Atlético’s attack harder to predict, and he fits in either formation Simeone wants to use — the 3-5-2 or the 4-4-2.

Score prediction for Sunday?

Villarreal almost always give Atlético a tough time, even though Simeone historically has had the upper hand on Unai Emery. However, I’ve been impressed with Atlético’s physical condition through two weeks after so many players were busy participating in international tournaments over the summer. I expect a tough game, a difficult game, but ultimately a late 2-1 win for Atleti.

Thanks again to Jeremy for sitting down with us, and beat the crap out of the ‘big two’ this year!

*if you don’t get this joke, follow ITC’s Twitter account more closely (@intothecalderon).