The Madrid derby is not just a huge game in the La Liga title race. It is also huge for what it could mean for Madrid’s footballing hierarchy.
For the most part, football in Madrid has been dominated by Real. But like everything this year, 2020 has thrown up some surprises. And on Saturday night, Atletico could take their first steps towards overthrowing their historically superior neighbours.
After just 10 games, they are top of the table, with two games in hand on Real Sociedad in second. Some would say that they are in that lofty position because of the up and down form of both Real Madrid and Barcelona. Some might be right.
But as things stand, they are, despite Diego Simeone’s protestations, title favourites. They are, so far at least, the best team in Spain.
Atletico’s title challenge has not just come about overnight. In recent years, the club have found themselves playing third fiddle to Barcelona and Real, an outsider to the two heavyweights of Spanish football. But Atletico’s title challenge has been built upon something that neither Barcelona or Real have been able to do recently – replace their outgoing stars effectively.
Over recent seasons, Atletico have lost a number of key starters. Rodri, Lucas Hernandez, Antoine Griezmann, Thomas Partey and Diego Godin have all moved on. To any club, replacing just one of these players would be a challenge. But not for Atletico. Departures have not hindered them or defined them.
It has forced them to adapt. It has forced them to stay on their toes. It has forced them to keep their squad fresh, unlike their rivals who have stayed stagnant.
Only Koke, the now club captain, José Gimenez, who was 19 at the time, and Diego Costa, who left Atletico for Chelsea to return four years later, remain from Simeone’s last title winning side. This is a new iteration of Atletico. It is not the same team as the 2014 side, but much of the same principles and philosophy remain.
Their title challenge all starts with Simeone. In football, it is rare that a manager can be famous for more than one of his teams at the same club for a prolonged period of time.
Pep Guardiola has seemingly always moved on after a few seasons, Jurgen Klopp is yet to have that opportunity with Liverpool, and Jose Mourinho’s tenures usually end in tears. But few managers in the history of modern football have handled a club rebuild better than El Cholo. The only man to have done it better is Sir Alex Ferguson.
Simeone has been in charge for nearly a decade. During that time, there has occasionally been rumblings about the need for a change in style. But there’s something different about this Atletico team. They are not the same Simeone side.
Sure, the Argentine has been a consistent voice over a prolonged period of time. And yes, they still favour a pragmatic approach. But a fresher squad has meant that his message has not gone stale. They have not tuned him out. If anything, it has allowed Atletico to effectively evolve.
Dogged in defence and clinical in attack, they have started this season in resplendent form. They have scored an impressive 21 goals so far, conceding just two in the process. Only Sociedad have scored more but having played two more games.
Atletico’s evolution this season can also be attributed to player performances. Simeone is getting the best out of his key men and it is showing through in their early results.
Last season, their top scorer was Alvaro Morata, who finished the campaign with 16 goals in 32 games. This season, Joao Felix alone has already scored eight goals in 12 games.
Felix, the man who was brought into replace Griezmann last season for a club-record £113m fee, looks to have finally found his footing after an inconsistent start in red and blue. Alongside Felix, Atletico have also been driven forward by a former Real Madrid player in Marcos Llorente. Llorente, a defensive midfielder at Real, has, like Atletico this season, evolved.
Moved into a more attacking role, Llorente has flourished with the Spaniard adding a new edge to Atletico’s attack – an edge that Liverpool fans will be familiar with after he almost single-handedly dumped them out of the Champions League last season.
Based on his performances this season, he is arguably the best player in Spain. Luis Suarez, who was maligned during his latter years at Barcelona, has hit the ground running this season, scoring five goals in his first seven La Liga games.
All of these elements point to a club pulling in the right direction. They seem totally united. There is no in-fighting. This is a total commitment to the cause.
Saturday night could be huge in the La Liga title race but could be seismic for what it means for football in Madrid.
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