Atlético Madrid must get creative if they are to close the gap on Spain's big two

STATS ZONE OVER EUROPE: FourFourTwo's award-winning FREE app now also covers the top flights in Italy, Spain, France and Germany (as well as England, Champions League and Europa League). Paul Wilkes - editor of the - uses Stats Zone to assess where third-placed Atletico Madrid must improve... 

It was the same old story at the Vicente Calderón, as Real Madrid's hold over city rivals Atlético continued. It's 14 years and 25 matches since Atléti last managed a win over Los Blancos.

In the past they have been accused of bottling it, having a poor mentality and simply not being good enough when coming face-to-face with their considerably richer foes. Even though this time round they were facing Real Madrid's second string, the fixture highlighted another weakness: their lack of creativity.

This season, under Diego Simeone, Atletico have worked hard, been difficult to penetrate and defensively superb. After all, they have conceded the fewest goals in la Liga this season, and only Barcelona have allowed their opponents fewer shots.

In midfield, they fight for every last ball (no surprise, given the playing history of their manager) and inevitably this means they give away a number of free-kicks. At the other end of the pitch, they are the fourth highest scorers in the league, with 58 goals in 33 matches, yet only 28 of those goals have come from open play. No team has scored more set-pieces or penalties in the whole of La Liga.

Striking the right balance between defence and attack is their biggest problem. Simeone's philosophy has centred around making Atlético hard to beat, aggressively pressing the opposition into mistakes and then quickly dropping back into shape and not leaving goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois exposed.

As a former Rojiblancos player himself, Simeone knows not only what it means to play for the club, but what the squad needed upon his arrival. An animated personality, he has used his motivational techniques to build a fantastic resilience among his team. They are a functional side, but not without their limitations.

Last season they had Diego Ribas on loan as a No.10 and Arda Turan drifting in from the wing, but the club couldn't afford to make Ribas a permanent purchase, while Turan has missed the last four matches after picking up an injury against Valencia. When they have needed that extra bit of guile in attacking areas, only Koke looks capable of providing it, and that doesn't appear to be his natural game just yet.

Further back, they have your typical holding midfielders – Tiago and Mario Suárez – with Gabi offering more of a box-to-box threat. Yet they have no deep-lying playmaker. Raúl Garcia has made an impact this season, though mainly from the right, scoring five goals, but only Courtois has a lower pass completion rate, showing how wasteful Garcia can be in possession.

They do at least have a hot prospect in the form of Óliver Torres. In the long term he could offer the solution to their creativity problems, either in the midfield or behind the strikers, but the youngster has yet to start a match for the club.

In the Madrid derby, the middle of the park lacked artistry all round. Real Madrid boss José Mourinho paired Sami Khedira with Pepe – effectively two destroyers – as he seemed content with the draw which would have maintained the three-point gap between the two sides in the league. For Diego Simeone, it was the usual midfield partnership of Gabi and Mario Suárez: having not beaten their city rivals since October 1999, it was important that Atlético weren't too open.

Suárez breaks up the play well and Gabi distributes the ball out wide quickly, but after Real Madrid had taken a 2-1 lead against the run of play, Mourinho was able to throw on pass-masters Xabi Alonso and Luka Modrić to run the game. Those players' pricetags put them well out of Atléti's grasp, but they desperately need to identify cheaper alternatives.

With Champions League football practically secured, the team need a variety of options to ensure they can remain competitive both at home and in Europe next season. Arda Turan has hinted that he is considering moving on, but even if he doesn't there's a need to provide him with some assistance. When the team can't simply rely on pace and power, then their choices are inexperienced 18- and 21-year-olds, which isn't likely to be enough to see them make much impact in Europe's eite competition.

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