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Atletico Madrid target Aissa Mandi could herald new beginning for Diego Simeone

00:03 GMT+3 06/04/2019
Aissa Mandi Real Betis Real Madrid
The Algeria international could be key to forging a new identity for Los Colchoneros, one which will help them compete with Barcelona again

There is nothing that quite encapsulates the season Atletico Madrid have had as well asl Diego Godin’s comments following Los Colchoneros’  loss to Athletic Club in mid-March.

“We feel hurt because we weren't Atletico Madrid,” he said, the implication being that they had failed to assert their own peculiar brand of physical control on the game.

He would know, of course.

The Uruguayan has been in state, first at the Vicente Calderon, and now at the Wanda Metropolitano, for nine years. He has come to almost embody the warrior spirit of the club, and he is Diego Simeone’s on-pitch general, the very soul of the team.

Within an ethos that brooks no weakness, this sudden crisis of identity perhaps goes some way toward explaining why Atletico failed to properly mount a title challenge, in a season when many tipped them to repeat the heroics of 2013/14.

It has also raised existential questions: what if the problem is that this militant football has hit a wall?

Perhaps what is required is not an assertion of the self, but an evolution?

If so, does Simeone have it in him to do something different?

That last question, in particular, is a pertinent one. Cholo has enough credit that there can be no real talk of replacing him just yet. That said, in order to remain relevant in the wider scheme, he may need to get Atletico playing a more expansive style.

It seems like he knows it too. Godin will leave in the summer, and Algeria international Aissa Mandi is reportedly on the shortlist of candidates to replace the veteran, according to Mundo Deportivo.

On the surface, it is an odd choice. Mandi has flourished under Quique Setien, a man as ideologically opposed to Simeone as is possible, at Real Betis over the past two seasons. An elegant centre-back also capable of playing at right-back, he is the opposite of Godin, who is a fierce battler through and through.

At 27, Mandi would provide a reasonable amount of experience, while at the same time having a bit of room for growth still. Beyond that there seems to be little to indicate it would be a proper fit.

Simeone does have previous in this respect, however.

When he signed Antoine Griezmann from Real Sociedad in 2014, it was not immediately apparent how the Frenchman, a talented but somewhat dainty winger, would fit in at a club whose style was based on set-pieces and hard running.

And yet, it worked. Griezmann helped the club evolve a more proactive playing style, while himself undergoing a maturing, both physically and mentally. It was a move that showcased, not just Simeone’s coaching nous, but also his ability to spot something lying dormant beneath the surface, a hunger, a spark that can be coaxed into something fiercer.

It may well be that he has seen that in Mandi as well, but beyond even that, purchasing the Algerian could signify probably the biggest shift yet.

While Atletico have adjusted to their new-ish reality as one of Europe’s elite clubs, they have largely done so within a framework that prioritizes solidity, exemplified by defending deep and breaking forward.

This is not the sort of game to which Mandi is suited: at 6ft 1in, he is on the small side for a centre-back, and even though he is no slouch in the air, it would be an unnecessary risk to bring him into a system that actively encourages opponents to cross.

Instead, perhaps Simeone has realized, somewhat belatedly, that in order to make a proper play for the title, he will need to defend higher up the pitch, and improve Atletico’s play in possession.

Within the context of an extremely competitive league, and with so many upwardly mobile teams, his preferred reactivity has tended to cede the advantages in quality that his team does have.

Draws at the likes of Girona, Leganes and Villarreal, all teams in the bottom half of the table, have done Simeone the most harm this season.

In that sense, Mandi could well be the herald of a 'new' Atletico, one willing to seize the initiative and play as protagonists. This season may well be gone, especially if they lose to Barcelona on Saturday, but when next season comes around, a new defensive leader will be the key to closing the gap.