Atlético Madrid: Its time to take them seriously

Fast, physical and ruthless; second-placed Atlético have left the scars of their past behind and may be hard for Real to catch.

(Getty)

(Getty)

The gap? Hang on a minute, which gap? The gap between Real Madrid and Barcelona might be 15 points, but the gap at the top is eight points. While most naturally focus on the big two, a third team stands between them. It is Atlético Madrid who are second, seven points ahead of Real, and it is no fluke, no quirk of the fixture list: the season is 20 games old and everyone has played everyone else. Besides, it’s not just this season, it’s last season too. Time to take Atlético Madrid seriously. Maybe not to catch Barcelona – eight points remains huge and Barcelona’s 3-2 defeat to Real Sociedad was their first in 20 games, only the second time they’ve dropped any points at all – but to compete for second.

When Diego Simeone took over in week 18 of last season, he was the 49th coach the club had employed under the current owners. Conflict was constant; stability impossible. Even success – and don’t forget that they did win the 2010 Europa League – didn’t bring peace. They were forever tottering on the edge of a cliff. Now, even problems don’t knock them over the edge. On Sunday night Radamel Falcao picked up a muscle injury. No panic, no tears, no whine, just a smile. “He’ll be a great addition to the squad when he comes back,” Simeone said.

Since Simeone arrived, something has changed at the Calderón. Some could see it coming from the start. Simeone had only been there a couple of weeks when one person close to the squad confided: “Something’s changed.” He added: “Cholo’s different and so are the players: he’s really sticking it to them and they’re not rebelling. I’ve never seen them like this.” Others had tried but failed. No other man could have united Atlético like Simeone has: a former club captain and double winner, an idol who always promised to return, his status is untouchable. At the training ground, in the boardroom and at the Calderón.

In the Atlético Madrid dressing room, only one person has a status even approaching his and that’s Falcao whose very personality, seriousness and relationship with Simeone means that there is no challenge. Players who, in the words of one man at the club, “did whatever the hell they wanted,” now daren’t. Even the battle between the president, Enrique Cerezo, and the chief executive, Miguel-Angel Gil, the fault line that has undermined the club for years, has been somehow subsumed into Simeone, master of all he surveys. If players complain to the directors, their gripes go unheard. Suddenly, surprisingly, everyone is heading in the right direction.

“If we don’t live for our work and effort we will be distracted by things that can do us lots of damage,” Simeone said. “Simeone has changed our mentality,” added Falcao. Yet he is close to his players too: one of the first things he told them was that fans had whistled him too. Together, they would win them over. Before the derby with Madrid, 21,000 fans turned up to watch them train and cheer the players on; when they inevitably lost the derby, it didn’t matter for once. The fatalism was less, the impact mitigated. Incredibly, they were still ahead of their neighbours and the following week the Calderón was packed again … Atlético hammered Deportivo 6-0.

From the start there was another simple message: know your limitations. “As soon as we stop doing the right things we’ll fail,” the coach told his players. “We must be clear and we must be constant.” On the opening day of the season, Atlético drew at Levante, despite having 69% of the ball. “We played the way the Spanish like, with lots of possession. But I want to have the ball less and make more chances,” Simeone said. The comment contained a dig; it also contained an essential truth.

Eleven teams have completed more passes than them but only Osasuna and Real Sociedad have put more balls into the box and only Real Madrid and Barcelona have scored more goals. They’re 11 goals ahead of anyone else. Bit by bit, they are starting to dominate teams too, taking control of the ball and pushing opponents back. Yet they remain hard to break down. Thibault Courtois is one of Spain’s best goalkeepers and has consistently impressed – he made an astonishing string of saves against Betis in the Copa del Rey – yet he has had to make fewer stops than any other goalkeeper. And only Málaga have conceded fewer goals.

Atlético are aggressive and competitive, fast and physical; as the Spanish definition has it they are pesado, hard-going, insistent, heavy. Speaking of which, at the end of the game there was a confrontation in the tunnel between Simeone and the Levante captain, Sergio Ballesteros. Simeone did not run, nor complain; there was a kind of added strength in his silence, almost an admiration for his adversary. “Ballesteros defends his club and I defend ours,” he said.

It is almost the perfect definition of Simeone and his team: never back down, never lose your cool, never desist. “They undo you with their intensity,” said the Levante manager, Juan Ignacio Martínez. Right from the start. They have gone into the half-time break in the lead in 12 of their last 16 games at home; not once have they headed for the dressing room trailing.

To read the whole article by Sid Lowe please visit the Guardian website. 

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