Diego Simeone can scoff all he wants at the suggestion that his Atletico Madrid team has become a formidable attacking side.
But the numbers, and the added threats he now deploys, don’t lie. The team that Simeone long forged into a defensive machine could just score its way to a title in 2016-17.
The improvement in attack is thanks to the continued growth of Antoine Griezmann and the emergence of a pair of partners to share the scoring burden the France standout has shouldered in recent campaigns. Yannick Carrasco and Kevin Gameiro might just be the missing ingredients Atletico needs to successfully culminate another run at silverware.
Simeone, however, insists that this latest incarnation of his team is true to his team-first philosophy.
“I laugh when they say that now we are an attacking side and that now we are playing well,” Simeone said. “The facts speak more than words.”
The Argentine coach points back to his 2012 team that won the Europa League with Radamel Falcao in his prime. But having to reach that far back highlights that missing No. 9 since Diego Costa left Atletico for Chelsea following their surprise 2014 Spanish league title.
But now Atletico appears to have finally found the help that Griezmann lacked last season when Atletico came up short in the Champions League final to Real Madrid and stumbled in the league with two matches left.
This season is barely two months old and Griezmann, Carrasco and Gameiro have combined for 18 goals.
No, they aren’t as glamorous as Barcelona’s trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez or Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema. Yet Atletico’s forwards may be good enough, considering the perfectly balanced squad behind them with Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion and Saul Niguez in midfield, Diego Godin in defense, and goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
Atletico has maintained the staunch defense that has defined it since Simeone’s arrival in 2011, allowing a league-low six goals through 10 matches this season. But it has also scored 25 league goals, 10 more than at this point last season.
Atletico is in third place in the league, three points behind Madrid, and leads its Champions League group after three wins, including a victory over Bayern Munich. Atletico hosts Russian club FC Rostov in the European tournament on Tuesday.
In the league, it has dished out lopsided thrashings of 7-1, 5-0, 4-0 and 4-2, giving it the best goal difference in the competition. Only Barcelona with 30 goals and Real Madrid with 28 have scored more.
That 4-2 result came against Malaga on Saturday, a victory that featured two goals apiece from Carrasco and Gameiro.
Carrasco’s goals showcased his best weapon: speed.
The 23-year-old winger used a quick change of pace to wrong-foot his marker before opening the scoring. He later surpassed that with a breathtaking solo effort in the final minutes when he overtook a defender with a blistering sprint before rifling home a pin-point shot from long range.
“I am very ambitious,” said Carrasco, who two weeks ago renewed his contract through 2022. “Thanks to the team I am enjoying a good stretch. I hope it continues.”
Carrasco has already surpassed his scoring total for last campaign with seven goals. That includes the Belgium international’s first career hat trick to fuel the 7-1 rout of Granada, and goals for 1-0 victories over Bayern and Rostov.
“Carrasco has grown thanks to work,” Simeone said. “He works as hard as anyone. He continues to grow and has a lot more to give. The best thing about Carrasco is that he is now fully integrated into the team. It’s not just about his goals.”
Gameiro’s two strikes against Malaga were his first multi-goal outing for Atletico since his arrival from Sevilla for a reported 30 million euros ($34 million).
The investment is paying off as Gameiro settles into a side that has been missing consistent goals from its striker position. It got 22 league goals from Griezmann in each of the last two seasons, but lacked a reliable second scorer after Mario Mandzukic and Jackson Martinez didn’t pan out.
Gameiro’s promising start earned him a recall from France for its World Cup qualifiers. He didn’t disappoint, scoring twice to lead its 4-1 win over Bulgaria on Oct. 7.
And Gameiro believes he has more to give his new team.
“We still haven’t seen the Gameiro of Sevilla,” he said. “I still need a bit more of confidence. Little by little I am honing my style and my teammates are helping me a lot.”