Michael Cox evaluates the Rojoblancos ahead of Saturday's Madrid derby meeting at Santiago Bernabeu...
One of the more peculiar features of the 2012/13 Spanish season was the Copa del Rey final, between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, being held at Santiago Bernabeu.
The choice of venue for the contest is always something of a soap opera – without a national stadium, Spain has to select a ‘neutral’ venue on a year-by-year basis.
Both clubs agreed Madrid was the obvious choice of city – and the Bernabeu, with a greater capacity than Vicente Calderon, was the natural option.
Still, it meant Atletico were up against it – not only were they the underdogs, they were essentially playing an away fixture. When you consider they hadn’t beaten Real in their last 27 attempts, and Real had won the last 10 meetings, they surely had no chance.
But somewhat ludicrously, Atletico won 2-1. It was an impressive, battling performance typical of Diego Simeone’s reign – the game was scrappy, bitty and occasionally downright dirty, which entirely suited the ‘away’ side. Things don’t get much better for Madrid’s second club – not just defeating Real Madrid in the cup final, but doing so at the Bernabeu.
Disadvantaged by the decision initially, the choice of venue simply made it an even greater upset.
Four months later, the teams are set to meet for the first time since that final – again, at the Bernabeu. While Carlo Ancelotti’s side are still trying to become a cohesive unit, Atletico have started the campaign in magnificent form – they’ve won all six league games, and are two points and one place ahead of Real Madrid in the table.
They’ve scored more and conceded fewer. Given the confidence boost that comes with their cup win in May, Atletico have a genuine chance to record their first league victory over Real this century. But what makes Atletico so good?
Despite boasting two excellent strikers in Diego Costa and David Villa, plus a settled back-line and a fine goalkeeper, arguably the most interesting part of Simeone’s side is the midfield. First and foremost, Atletico are an extremely gritty, aggressive side, and although Simeone’s formation has been 4-4-2 this season, the midfield plays extremely narrow and crowds out opponents looking to play intelligent, technical football.
The man who epitomises this most is Gabi, who Simeone made his club captain. His performance in the 2-0 win away at Real Valladolid last weekend was typical – all five tackles were successful, and he also made three interceptions.
Gabi is one of three Atletico players who are amongst the top 10 most prolific tacklers in La Liga, alongside left-back Filipe Luis and midfield partner Tiago. The Portuguese international was regarded as a good ball-player earlier in his career, but has become scrappier at Atletico.
He completes a high number of interceptions, working laterally across the pitch – but his passing is perhaps more interesting. Although extremely consistent when playing sideways passes, Tiago generally concedes possession when attempting to play the ball forward.
Mario Suarez is another option, meanwhile, and so far this season has acted as Atletico’s chief fouler.
Two of these three – Gabi, Koke and Suarez – will occupy the two central midfield positions. In the wide positions, Simeone also has options. Raul Garcia was originally an energetic box-to-box central midfielder, but Simeone has instead chosen to use him in a right-sided role. Garcia arguably offers the greatest goal threat of Atletico’s midfielders, attempting 17 shots from his three starts, finding the net three times.
His passing, however, is frequently wayward – in the 5-0 win over Rayo Vallecano his pass completion rate was just 50%.
But the other two options offer more technical quality – and both are able to play on either flank. 21-year-old playmaker Koke currently leads La Liga’s assist charts alongside Cesc Fabregas, and has achieved the near-impossible feat of breaking into the national team’s midfield, earning three caps this year.
With 17 key passes and five assists already, he’s Atletico’s most creative option.
Finally, there’s Arda Turan. A diminutive, inventive number 10, he’s happily changed his game to become comfortable in a wide role, usually starting on the left. He offers something no other Atletico midfielder is truly capable of – running at speed in possession, and dribbling past opponents.
He usually moves inside into centre-left positions, but is capable of decent delivery from wide zones.
Simeone’s key decision ahead of Saturday night’s clash is in midfield. We know the identity of the goalkeeper, back four and two strikers – but it’s in midfield where the game will be won and lost.
Knowing Simeone, expect him to select his most aggressive, combative and determined midfield quartet – all four of his midfielders were cautioned in the cup final, with Gabi receiving a second booking late on.
Real’s task will be to pass around the chaos, and get the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale out wide.