Atletico Madrid have become a real force to reckon with under the tutelage of Diego Simeone. The Argentine manager has transformed his team from Champions or Europa League place contenders into title winners. That he has done this in a league so historically dominated by two teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona, is all the more remarkable.
Atleti currently sit equal on points with Barcelona, who, with their famous ‘MSN’ (Messi-Suarez-Neymar) trio up front, a few weeks ago many thought would run away with the title. This raises the prospect of them winning their second title with Simeone, the last being their triumph in the 2013-14 season.
Simeone has also turned the Colchoneros into Champions League title contenders, riveting the world of football by beating over two legs in the quarter-finals a Barcelona team that was being called the best team in history (rivalling even the great Barca side of the Pep Guardiola years).
But so how has he been able to do it?
The first thing to note about Simeone’s Atleti is that they are a true team. While they have a number of highly talented individuals, no one is more important than the team itself, and each player contributes to the greater whole or they are not selected. They are highly organised, the defenders and midfielders sitting in two flat banks of four, the two strikers pressing from the front, in a 4-4-2 formation from which they rarely stray.
Against Barcelona in the Champions League, these banks of four sat extremely deep and narrow, straying only to press the ball when it entered ‘dangerous’ areas in and around their box and when winning it back was a distinct possibility.
It is this disciplined approach to football that has allowed them to have by far the best defensive record in the league. They have let in just 16 goals this season, compared to 29 for Barca and 30 for Real, who have conceded the second and third fewest, respectively. They also make on average more tackles per game than any other team, highlighting their defensive effort.
It is said that Simeone’s Atleti don’t care about the middle of the pitch – it’s what matters in either box that counts. However, this doesn’t quite do justice to their excellent passing and attacking abilities. Koke is one of the most gifted technicians in the Spanish game. Gabi and the up-and-coming Saul Niguez are complete midfielders capable of chipping in goals as well as defending. Yannick Carrasco is emerging as one of the best dribblers in the league. Antoine Griezmann is one of the most talented players in the league, a sublime finisher with excellent technique.
Against Barcelona, whenever Atleti won the ball back they launched extremely quick counter-attacks, their defenders and midfielders utilising speed of thought and accurate passing to release either Fernando Torres or Griezmann into the defensive third, who proved clinical in front of goal. Getting the ball upfield quickly also reduces the risk of losing possession in a dangerous area, either in defence or midfield. No other team has found a more effective way of playing against the talented individuals at Barca.
No other defence, made up of the experienced Diego Godin, Jose Gimenez, Felipe Luis and Juanfran, has made Barca and Real’s stars look so ordinary.
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