Should Torres or Mandzukic complete Simeone's Atletico strike duo?
Atletico Madrid's summer of exits disrupted several areas of their team, but it hit the forward line the hardest. In 2013-14, David Villa and Diego Costa's combination of tactical know-how, selflessness and goals helped the Colchoneros to take maximum points from bogey grounds like Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu and Valencia's Mestalla for the first time in decades. Atletico won the league last season by just a three-point margin, and the pair's importance in those wins can't be overstated.
It was short-lived; both players moved on and took a huge chunk of the Spanish champions' winning formula with them. Finding a similarly balanced strike partnership was an absolute must if manager Diego Simeone wanted to make sure his team stayed competitive, and he hasn't been afraid to experiment in order to do so. With a season-defining Madrid derby on the horizon, it looks like the manager's shortlist has narrowed -- but which option will he throw his weight behind?
Since Fernando Torres rejoined his boyhood club in December, Atletico have consistently used a two-strike pairing. The first, Torres alongside Antoine Griezmann, has started four games post-Christmas. A second pairing of the Frenchman with Mario Mandzukic has started the same number of fixtures in that period. Simeone's two favoured combinations offer distinct characteristics, shaping the team's overall game in turn.
As crunch fixtures draw nearer, opting for one or the other will impact the outcome of Atletico's season. The development of the Griezmann/Mandzukic combination has required hard work, but is now starting to look like a well-oiled machine. Since a 3-1 league win over Levante on January 3rd, the duo have produced a combined total of eight goals and three assists while together on the pitch. The La Liga champions have taken nine points from 12 in those four fixtures, only stumbling away to Barcelona.a
It took time for Mandzukic and Griezmann to settle. The latter has been converted from winger to striker, while the former had to adjust to playing for a team that sits far deeper than his former club, Bayern Munich.
Mandzukic is a penalty-area goal-scorer, not someone who will sprint beyond an opposition back four in the way Costa used to do so effectively for Atleti. The Croatian initially attempted to replicate his predecessor's runs, but as Griezmann's own capabilities as an 'off the shoulder' forward developed, the veteran of the two learned to hold a deeper position. Now adept at supplying his quicker teammate with aerial flick-ons, or pulling out wide to hold the ball up and help Atletico to advance as a unit, with every game Mandzukic seems to understand Griezmann more intuitively, and vice versa.
The older striker's underrated link-up play has shone. He now consistently interprets where to feed the ball in order to maximise Griezmann's own strengths, while the former Real Sociedad man has also learned how to find his partner, discovering the best way to supply him. That was evident in the duo's last game together, a visit to Eibar on January 31st. A precise left-footed cross from Griezmann was volleyed home in the box by Mandzukic for the second goal of the game, the finisher pointing to his provider in acknowledgment after the ball hit the back of the net. A second combination should have resulted in another goal early in the second half, when Griezmann dropped off into the hole and threaded an accurate ball through to Mandzukic in the area, only for a bobble on the horrid Ipurua pitch to kill the chance.
Simeone called the game, "one of Mandzukic's best since he arrived, complete in terms of quality, work, goals and mobility", while also noting the effectiveness of Griezmann's "pace and one v one". What one player lacks, the other has in abundance; the two complementing each other in a manner not dissimilar to Villa and Costa the year before. Yet they can't be considered the first choice pair just yet: the rapid revival of Torres has given Simeone something of a headache.
In the four encounters they have started together since January, Torres and Griezmann have chalked up a combined total of three goals and two assists. The numbers may be lower than the Mandzukic/Griezmann combination, but the quality of the opponents carries extra weight. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid have shipped goals to the duo, something that will surely enter their manager's mind when preparing for teams who peg the Colchoneros back, the kind of teams they tend to face in the most vital fixtures.
Their suitability for those situations is primarily based on pace. Torres lost a yard of that to injury in England, but famed Colchoneros' fitness coach Oscar "El Profe" Ortega seems to be working his magic on the ex-Liverpool man. The two goals the homegrown hero scored at the Santiago Bernabeu on January 15th reflected his positive physical condition. The first was the culmination of a classic four-pass Atleti counter-attack, the striker managing to keep pace with Sergio Ramos, then arriving in the Madrid area at the perfect moment to fire home Griezmann's cross. For the second goal, Torres was off and running as soon as he saw Griezmann step up to latch onto Ramos' attempted pass, always staying ahead of the move in order to find the perfect space from which to take the shot. It is unlikely that Mandzukic would have arrived with similar timing for either finish.
When Torres is sharp, both in his touch and physical fitness, there are few strikers more suited to swift counter-attacking football. When Simeone said in January that he looked "strong, powerful and fast", observers in England and Italy may well have scoffed. The displays against Madrid and Barca suggest his manager was right. With Torres and Griezmann together up front, the possibility of a first time pass from deep resulting in a goal increases significantly. The type of passes that is largely useless for Mandzukic.
That's what Torres offers when fielded alongside Griezmann, but Mandzukic has plenty of merits of his own. Better in the air, better in the box, better at holding up play and better at bringing others into the game than the Spaniard, he won't challenge a top centre-back for pace, but he can challenge them in other ways. After all, Torres isn't the only Atletico forward to punish Real Madrid this season. It was Mandzukic's second minute strike from a Griezmann assist that won Atletico the Spanish Super Cup derby in August; a pure number nine's finish, half-volleying home from just inside the area while wrestling with two defenders. Would Torres have done the same?
Ultimately, both partnerships are in form, both have done damage to the reigning Champions League holders, and both offer equally valid, if different, methods of attack. But which one will Simeone go with this weekend? In the short-term, unpredictability is a useful weapon, but consistency and regularity will soon be required if Atletico want to register a fourth successive season of major honours. Real Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Sevilla and Valencia all lie in wait in the coming month. Time to make a decision.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.