GROWLBALL #2: A Look Ahead To Real Madrid vs Atlético Madrid
I decided to look at Saturday’s Madrid Derby. If you like this kind of stuff then check out /r/soccernerd
The most successful teams in Spanish club football are Real Madrid (32 wins) and Barcelona (22 wins). There have only been six times in the history of La Liga that Real or Barca were not in the top three. Five of those occasions were before 1951. The big two clubs have dominated.
For years, the narrative of Spanish football exported around the world has been of an eternal El Clásico with two clearly defined protagonists; the rebellious Barca versus the conservative Real. In the process, the two clubs have shared a large slice of the league’s growing broadcasting revenue. In 2011/12 Real and Barcelona each earned 11 times as much as the lowest placed Liga team. Media focus on these two has increased the club’s revenues, this has fed more success which in turn feeds more media focus. The result is that the two big beasts have blossomed in the sun, while the other 18 teams mostly struggle in the shade. Attempts to sustain a consistent top-two finish for Deportivo in the 1990’s and Valencia in the 2000’s ultimately faded away. Even a 3rd place finish is tacitly understood as a failure for Real Madrid or Barcelona.
There is sporting competitiveness amongst the chasing pack of the Primera División. Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla, Villarreal, Real Sociedad, and Valencia all feature in the wider picture. Sevilla, this year’s Europa League winners, finished the season in 5th. There is quality as we dig down in La Liga, but there is a sizeable distance between the top three and all the teams below. Last season there was the same points difference between 3rd and 5th as between 5th and 18th.
Atlético Madrid are the current anomaly. The team has temporarily bridged the divide. They defied the odds and were crowned Spanish champions. It has taken manager Diego Simeone just three years to unseat Real and Barca at the top. So how did he do it?
Firstly, some credit must be shared with his predecessors. Previous managers Aguirre and Flores achieved sporadic European success and laid decent foundations, allowing Simeone to inherit a side containing some technical promise. The club has reportedly operated under huge debt during this time and much has been made of a tangled financial web involving third-part-ownership and tax repayments. While Atléti sold Aguero, De Gea and Falcao for huge sums, they were promoting Costa, García, loaning Courtois, and nabbing David Villa for a bargain £4m.
Simeone has worked miracles on a budget. The Argentine manager chiselled raw talent into a team of his own likeness. A cup team kneaded into league champions. Atlético are an efficient, hustling, modern 4-4-2 unit1. In recent times of possession football and an obsession with attacking through the centre of the pitch, Atlético reinvent the old-fashioned counter and utilise the wings to effect. They are tough and resilient, with an incredible work-rate. They defend as a bunch, often eight or nine players dropping deep to stifle opponents. Michael Cox mentions the defensive ‘pressing traps’ they use2. The solid back four of Juanfran, Godin, Miranda and Luis all played over 30 of the 38 games during 2013-14. The team was built on clockwork familiarity blended with a devotion to positional responsibility. There is also a desire to sacrifice individual stardom for the greater good of the team. Ironically this teamwork has enabled some incredible solo performances to flourish. Courtois let in just 26 league goals all season while Costa scored 27 league goals at the other end.
Like Deportivo and Valencia before them, Simeone’s troops just breached the big-time. Now they face the much harder task; to make their siege last and turn the Spanish ‘top-two’ into the ‘top-three’. Finances will dictate what happens, if they become a selling club over the next few years they face an uphill task. This summer was evidence to the contrary, they bought in £75m worth of talent to offset the inevitability of losing key players. For now the nucleus of the side remains, along with Simeone.
Real’s 2013-14 and previous meetings
While Atlético enjoyed their greatest season ever, neighbours Real collected a tenth Champions League trophy, "Whatever you can do we can do better". It was a strange 2013-14 for Real, finishing with two cups but disappointment in the league. They broke the world transfer record by signing Gareth Bale and supplemented it with the promising Jesse, Isco and Illarramendi. Pre-season results were excellent under new coach Carlo Ancelotti. He took what was good from Mourinho’s side, minimised the drama and just got on with it. Ramos and Pepe were stalwarts in defence with Modric, Alonso and Di Maria forming an impressive midfield three. Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema offered pace and inventiveness up front.
Shock one came in September at home to Atlético in a 0-1 loss. Real went on to lose to Barcelona twice and to Sevilla and Celta Vigo. They still scored 104 goals with Ronaldo getting 31 and the side finished third in the league. Their downfall was away from home and by the time La Decima became a serious possibilty, Real’s title-challenge had suffered irreparable damage.
Though Real and Atleti have met 7 times in the last season, I’ll talk about the big one first; the Champions League final 2014. The game ended with 12 yellow cards, five goals and Simeone sent to the stands for losing it. For 90 minutes it was an edgy containment exercise for Atléti. Godin nicked a goal after a badly cleared corner. Simeone’s men protected their slender lead vigorously and intensely. They played an almost perfect game for 93 minutes only to be utterly deflated when Ramos scored from a corner with a well-placed header. The equaliser was as much about the defender’s accurate guidance as it was his anticipation of the ball. He is excellent in those situations.
Atlético had given everything to keep Europe’s fiercest attack at bay for 90 minutes and now they had to gather themselves for another 30 minutes. It proved too much. On 110’ Bale rose to capitalise on a spilled Di Maria shot. Bale’s tenacity and willingness to gamble on an error, not to mention his athleticism to be in the opposition goal-mouth deep into stoppage time, reaped a huge reward. The game was an uncomfortable spectacle from then on, Simeone blew his cool and the goals were piled on.
Throughout the extra-time, Real’s quality, speed and persistence on the break was the difference. Atlético were spent, hanging on in desperation. Real were merciless in victory. Even with a semi-fit Ronaldo they had offensive precision in reserve. Bale and the excellent Di Maria stretched the game later on when space appeared and those in red and white were finished. Possession ended 60/40 in Real’s favour. A valiant effort by Atléti ended in a painful defeat to their closest enemy.
Spain’s version of the Community Shield was a two-legged affair that gave us a glimpse into how the two sides will configure into the 2014-15 season. New signing James livened up a fairly dull occasion at the Santiago Bernabéu with a well-taken poke of a loose ball after 80 minutes. García levelled up after seven minutes with a glancing header. In the second leg, it took new £19m Costa replacement Mandžukić just over a minute to register the only goal of a fast and pretty dirty game. Casillas should have done better. Once again, Simeone was sent to the stands and is now serving an eight-match ban.
This match (transfer movements, strategy, strengths and weaknesses)
- Real Madrid vs Atlético Madrid
- La Liga
- Estadio Santiago Bernabéu
- Saturday 13 September 2014
- 8pm Local time
Now to this match. It’s only the third matchweek of La Liga, so the two teams will be looking to get a win for momentum here. Both teams have struggled in their previous league games: Atlético drew vs Rayo Vallecano and scraped a win against Eibar. Real began edgily for a win against Córdoba then were defensively poor to lose 4-2 away at Real Sociedad. For either side new arrivals and a World Cup hangover are taking a while to straighten out.
In place of Villa and Costa, Atlético now have the attacking options of Griezmann, Correa, Jiménez and Mandžukić. Oblak replaces Courtois in goal and comes from Benfica with a strong record. Another new keeper, the experienced Moya, is deputising while Oblak returns from a back injury. Siqueira comes in as a Luis replacement, he was also at Benfica last season playing on-loan while originally signed to Granada. Ansaldi can provide cover to both sides defensively. The new signings will add more flair and excitement. The arrival of Griezmann in a secondary striking role means there is less predictability in attack and more options.
Real had a fairly busy summer in the end. Alonso left for Bayern, reducing Real’s cautions-per-match considerably, but also taking important marshalling duties with him. Di María also left for Man Utd, a huge loss and not one the fans approved of. Promising youngster Morata left with a buy-back option to Juve and Lopez left for Milan. In came goalkeeper Navas, poster-boy signing Rodríguez, the talented Kroos, and Hernández. Chicharito could be a good deal if he gets a run in the side, a true poacher with pace. The ‘Little Pea’ is amazingly still only 26.
- “My confidence lies on two pillars: I have a group of professionals that are very concentrated and Cristiano scores a goal a game.” Ancelotti
Questions surround Real: How will Ancelotti solve his lineup dilemmas? Is Casillas loss of form a temporary blip? how do the new attacking options gel? Atlético have less headaches. Transfers have been positive, Griezmann and Mandžukić have started fairly well and they will no doubt be up for this.
Midfield can be a deciding factor in this game. Atlético have the edge here. Carlo is still figuring out how Kroos/James fit in with the overall plan. Real are light on work-rate and defensive organisation without Alonso and Di Maria. Alonso did a lot of dirty work and water-carrying to keep impetus in the middle and allow Modric to play. New signings Kroos and James are offensive players not suited to this task, they want to be creating themselves. Just like we saw when Alonso left Liverpool he leaves a huge hole that really becomes apparent in his absence. He possesses the ability to dictate a game often without being seen or heard (despite the customary yellow card). There is talk of Coentrao coming in alongside Modric and Kroos3, wilder talk too of Marcelo, Pepe or Varane shifting to Midfield. Ancelotti’s ideal is to keep the 4-3-3 that worked so well last season and now rotate players depending on the stengths of the opposition. Illarramendi it seems is not yet there for this level of contest. Atlético will very much enjoy this confusion. They countered often during the Supercoppa, Koke is in fine creative form particularly.
Another area of doubt for Real has been the back-line and Casillas. They have been sloppy, certainly in the last league game, conceding four goals. The keeper is having an iffy spell in white, that we know, (he did show good form for Spain during the international break however). The defence are making unusual errors and leaving players unmarked on corners and the like. Atlético have done well previously against Ramos and co. by isolating the back four in the air using long balls and dead-ball situations (In other words “knocking it up to the big man”). Mandžukić is perfect for this system. He was bought to be the difference in these games, make no mistake. He’s a one-in-two striker who has experience at the highest level. Costa was the singular difference when these two sides met in this fixture last year and ‘Mandzu’ will be looking to show it is business as usual. The Croatian is already off the mark for his new club and will be looking to exploit any weakness in Real’s currently suspect defensive organisation.
Ronaldo appears able to start which is a bonus, Khedira is out due to surgery. Hernández should get minutes in this game while Simeone’s position in the dug out will be filled by German Burgos. (The BBC did a nice profile of him recently4.)
So, will we see anything on Saturday to signify Atlético can make the long-term jump and create a permanent ‘big-three’? The game is important in this respect, but it will take longer than a season or two. They need another strong showing this year in both La Liga and Europe at least. It’s harder too, teams won’t be complacent against them this year, especially Real or Barcelona. Games between the three will be fiercely contested.
Inevitably, all eyes are on the Clásico next month. Luis Suarez being the latest headline act hoping to play the biggest stage.
Atlético will have to keep on muscling in and relying on collective strength. Punching above their weight (punching, kicking, snarling, whatever) to consistently live amongst the top two. They aren’t welcome, they don’t fit the narrative, that much is clear. They have grown to embrace the role as unwelcome outsiders, it seems to fuel them.
Submitted September 12, 2014 at 03:46PM by Growlbot_
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