Atlético Madrid sit joint-top of La Liga, with seven wins from seven – if they make it eight against Celta next Saturday it will be a La Liga record for most consecutive wins at the start of a season – and level with Barcelona, five ahead of Real Madrid, whom they beat in the league for the first time last Saturday this side of the century. They won the Europa League in 2012, followed it up with a Copa del Rey earlier this year. All the signs are pointing towards the natural progression: a league title, or at least a challenge.
However, they said this last year as well. By the turn of the New Year Atlético were still keeping pace at the top of the La Liga, but the giant strides of the top two proved too much. They fell off the place but qualification for the Champions League was still a significant achievement, and it might eventuate they stand a better chance in that competition.
That is hyperbole but consider the league: thirty-eight games eats deep into resources, and it is probably true when they say it is not the best starting eleven that wins but rather the team with the strongest ‘weak’ side. For all their recent success Atlético cannot match Real and Barca’s sheer strength of depth and resources. You do not need the details of Gareth Bale’s transfer to understand this; the contrast in financial health is already well-known.
While Atlético cannot match the top two off the pitch it is becoming increasingly clear that the disparity does not apply on the field. Previously Atlético’s 1-0 win might have been seen as a fluke but that feeling is no longer there. The result – and manner – of Atlético’s second successive victory over Real emphasised their progress under Diego Simeone. The Argentine was the 49th coach that the current owners have appointed during their tenure at the club but he has brought a stability that many thought otherwise impossible in the Spanish landscape so skewed towards the two top clubs.
Unsurprisingly, Madrid do not play extravagant football but no-one is really expecting them too. Ancelotti probably put it best. "Atlético Madrid play like Diego Simeone played: tough, focused, and tactically perfect."
After initial tinkering between formations, Simeone has settled on 4-4-2, but while that suggests an almost classic, two striker system it in actual fact belies the underlying rationale behind his choice in shape. Simeone drills his team meticulously in defence: there is perhaps no side comparable in their organisation without the ball – as Madrid learnt to great cost, they crowd out the central area by tucking the wide players in narrow, with the two forwards dropping back to pick up opposition deep-lying midfielders.
There is no room for a no.10 – instead, the two playmakers, Koke and Arda Turan, have been forced into wider roles, with the main source of attacks long, flat passes into the channels for the strikers to chase. It is not an exclusively counter-attacking system, and Atlético look impressive when the two wide players move inside into central positions with possession, but in broad terms, Atlético are at their best when defending deep, before breaking quickly through the front two.
It is unsurprising, then, that they have flourished particularly in cup competitions. The Europa League and Copa Del Rey successes were built primarily on quick transitions – and the presence of a striker as clinical as Falcao helped.
The gulf between the elite sides and the rest of Europe has widened, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for outsiders to truly challenge in any of the major competitions, both domestically and continentally. It’s unrealistic to think that Atlético will seriously challenge in the Champions League, but their system is geared towards knockout tournaments, rather than league football – and the two wins against Real Madrid in the past six months show their increasing ability to match the top teams.
It’s rare for a weak side to win in a cup competition by dominating possession and playing positive football. Upsets are primarily built on organisation, compactness, counter-attacking and an indomitable team spirit – perhaps the four key attributes to Atlético’s recent success. Predicting a title win is a stretch too far, but they might build on their lofty La Liga standing with an extended Champions League run.