How Atletico Madrid Conquered Spain
his image is a derivative of Chelsea 1 Atletico Madrid 3 (agg 1-3) by @cfcunofficial (Chelsea Debs) London (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Nine games unbeaten in La Liga and five points clear at the top of the table with two games in hand on their bitter, cross-town rival Real Madrid.
With just over a half the season already in the books, the tables appear to have been turned, and turned dramatically in Spain, with Atletico Madrid ripping apart one of the very best leagues on the planet.
With Barcelona and Real Madrid sharing 15 of the last 16 available La Liga titles, and with each hoisting multiple Champions League trophies in that time, what Atletico have done so far this season has justifiably stopped the soccer world in its tracks.
The question is, just how have the ‘Mattress Makers’ conquered Spain?
The most common assumption when enquiring about Atletico Madrid's game style is their rock solid, Diego Simeone-inspired defence. Since the Argentine arrived in Madrid ten years ago, the Atletico backline has kept them around the top-tier of Spanish football, guiding them to a La Liga title and Champions League Final in 2013-14, and propelling them back to the UCL Final two years later.
And while defence remains the club’s calling card, conceding just 12 goals through their first 20 games this season, Atletico’s attack has sprung to life, playing an equally starring role in their extraordinary start to the season.
Atletico’s 2.1 goals per game is the best mark in Spain, with their sheer precision in the final-third electrifying their campaign. Having netted 42 goals despite an expected goal figure of 31.2is indicative of just how ruthless they’ve been, with their Uruguayan talisman Luis Suarez leading the way, having already netted a La Liga-best 16 times so far, also eclipsing his own expected goal number of 9.9.
Successful Low Block
The staple of Diego Simeone’s system is their resolute, near indestructible low block defence which has caused mass frustration and anger amongst opposition teams and supporters. While they have skewed away from it slightly this year, it remains the core principle when analysing Atletico Madrid’s success.
One characteristic of a low block is that it allows the opposition to advance the ball through their defence and midfield with relative ease, but which remains compact and ready to exploit opponents on the counter. This season, Atletico Madrid have La Liga’s third-lowest pressures in both the attacking and middle third, with their emerging superstar Joao Felix currently sitting just 210th in the league for pressure acts.
A further stat indicating Atletico’s incorporation of the low block is that they have surrendered the 2nd fewest carries into the penalty area this season indicating just how compact and tight they are, seldom allowing the opposition any space in their penalty area. They’re in fact 2nd for lowest opposition touches in the penalty area this season, while the 9 shots surrendered per game is Spain’s third-best number.
Atletico crashed out of the Copa Del Rey in the second round courtesy of a shock loss to second tier, Catalonian-based Cornella.
While that loss was a pronounced black-eye on an otherwise flawless season, it does leave Simeone’s men with just two competitions to focus on, and which might ultimately be a blessing in disguise.
In addition to their commanding lead in La Liga, Atletico are in the thick of yet another serious Champions League charge as well, and will face a much improved Chelsea in the Round of 16.
Speaking of the Round of 16, Atletico have reached this stage in seven off their last eight UCL entries, with the club desperate to add a continental crown to all of their hard work at the very highest level of world football. They’ll start favourites again Thomas Tuchel’s side while maintaining a very close eye on all things Real and Barca domestically.
Atletico Madrid have put themselves in a fantastic position to possibly win an 11th Spanish title, while remaining in the thick of Champions League action.
Amid a period of intense domination by Barcelona and Real Madrid, it’s remarkable that Atletico have been able to usurp their prominence, and thrive under the spotlight.
If their patented rock-solid defence can once again hold up, and if their razor-like precision can continue to flourish in attack, then this may well be a very famous season for one of the world's most hard working and admirable clubs.
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