Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone and his players have returned to work as they prepare to try and match up to richer rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga, but they have been hindered by a transfer ban that stops them making signings until January 2018.
The summer so far has been typically eventful for all involved with the club, and Simeone and those around him have five burning issues to resolve as they prepare for the big kick-off.
1. Getting Diego Costa back
Everyone at Atletico, and Costa himself, expected the Chelsea centre-forward to return to the La Liga club this summer.
Confirmation of their FIFA transfer ban complicated matters at the start of the summer. There are financial elements to sort out too, with Chelsea expecting a decent fee for a player who cost €38 million three years ago, and the board unable to come close to the wages that Jorge Mendes’ client could receive in China.
It still looks as if something will be arranged, with Costa using his social media account to keep the issue front and centre while he remains on holiday back home in Lagarto.
The 28-year-old could spend the next six months on the sideline at Atletico getting ready to launch into the second half of the season, but ideally, ahead of World Cup 2018, the Spain international would be sent on loan somewhere. Atletico already managed that last week when they bought Vitolo from Sevilla for €37m and parked him at Las Palmas.
2. Getting the Wanda Metropolitano finished
Atletico continue to send out regular press statements highlighting the progress at their new Wanda Metropolitano home — but work continuing at the stadium less than a month ahead of the start of the 2017-18 season is a huge concern.
– Wanda Metropolitano (@Metropolitano) July 4, 2017
No games can take place at the club’s new home until the local council and police give the green light to bring 68,000 fans to the remodelled former athletics stadium near Madrid’s airport, and a concerned fans group has already asked to keep the Vicente Calderon ready as a fall-back option.
Reports have claimed the club will ask La Liga to reverse some early fixtures so their first home game might not be until mid-September, but already there are fears that the stadium move will not go as smoothly as hoped.
3. Placing the players coming back from loan
Atletico’s scattergun transfer policy through recent years had seen them accumulate a large number of young players who may or may not end up good enough to make it into Simeone’s XI.
Returning to the club from loans elsewhere at the end of 2016-17 were: Alex Werner (who had been at Boca Juniors), Theo Hernandez (Alaves), Diogo Jota (Porto), Oliver Torres (Porto), Amath Ndiaye (Tenerife), Luciano Vietto (Sevilla), Matias Kranevitter (Sevilla), Rafael Santos Borre (Villarreal), Javier Manquillo (Sunderland), Emiliano Velazquez (Braga), Hector Fernandez (Albacete), Guilherme Siqueira (Valencia) and Bernard Mensah (Vitoria Guimaraes).
Some have already been moved on again, including Theo (sold to Real Madrid) and Torres (sold to Porto), with Siqueira released and Manquillo set to join Rafa Benitez at Newcastle. Velazquez and Mensah also have been excused preseason duties by Simeone, but the Argentine still had 33 players on the first day at their training camp so he needs to cut a lot more.
The most likely to be at the required standard for La Liga and the Champions League are Argentina senior internationals Vietto and Kranevitter, and maybe Portuguese starlet Jota. But then they are also the most saleable assets should more funds be required to secure Costa’s return.
4. Tweaking the tactics again
Last autumn the feeling at Atletico was that Simeone was rolling out a new more expansive approach, often fielding very attack-minded XIs, as he looked to progress from the basic tactics which had brought them success in previous seasons.
That did not exactly work out as planned and by November club captain Gabi was talking about the team being “more fragile” and expressing a desire to go back to what had worked before. The team’s renewed form after the winter break was based around such a solid foundation — although it is also true that the current squad is top heavy with attackers, and surprisingly weak, especially in defensive midfielders.
Perhaps the return to fitness of Argentina international Augusto Fernandez, who missed most of last season with a broken leg, can bring the required balance in the centre of the park. Reports from preseason see Simeone again trying out new systems, and pundits will be watching closely to see how the team shapes up their early weeks of the new campaign.
5. Sorting out Simeone’s long-term future
Last summer’s big news around the Calderon was Simeone cutting two years off his contract, meaning that he is now already into the last 12 months of his deal. The feeling then was that both club and coach saw it as important that the fans’ hero remained in charge for the first season at their new home, but that a parting of the ways in 2018 was then quite likely.
More recently, Atletico have been briefing local reporters that conversations had begun around a new contract that would stretch back out to 2020, and the Argentine’s sister and agent, Natalia, was spotted in the Spanish capital last weekend.
The club have done well to agree to new deals with key players Antoine Griezmann, Koke and Saul already this summer, and negotiations are likely to be concluded to extend the contracts of Jan Oblak and Jose Maria Gimenez.
However, there has been no concrete news of any agreement being reached with the boss, and the issue looks set to stretch well past the start of the new campaign.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan