Atletico Madrid’s return to Copa del Rey action this week was a poignant moment of reflection for a club that, after seasons of self-doubt and underachievement, has flown on an upward curve of improvement over the past year.
It was their last domestic cup game, a 1-0 home defeat to Segunda B side Albacete, that proved the final straw for the club’s quick fix directors with former manager Gregorio Manzano. An awful start to the league campaign that saw Los Colchoneros way off the pace of the Champions League places had been covered up by a promising start in the Europa League, but with the supporters backing for Manzano non-existent, a defeat to lower league opposition in front of an empty stadium saw their patience run out.
In contrast to the Vicente Calderon’s lack of affection for Manzano, in came club hero Diego Simeone. The Argentine had delivered mixed results on his managerial travels through his native land but did have success in a short stint at Catania and in just 10 months has transformed one of Europe’s biggest sleeping giants.
Atleti’s 3-0 win over Rael Jaen on Thursday night was their 23rd consecutive game without defeat. The run stretches back to the end of last season when the red and white half of Madrid celebrated a second Europa League triumph in three years and narrowly missed out on a return to the Champions League, missing out on fourth by just two points.
The fact the gap was so close was testament to Simeone’s turnaround even then as Atleti took more points than anyone other than Real Madrid and Barcelona from the point at which he was appointed, but this season their development has gone to another level.
Atleti’s run of eight straight league wins has them level with Barcelona on 25 from a possible 27 points and just one win away from breaking the record start held by the revered 1995/96 Atletico team of which Simeone was such a crucial part that went onto complete the club’s only ever league and cup double.
The former River Plate boss’ press conferences are often caricatures of his own character and playing style with constant reference to commitment, desire and sacrifice for the team, but Simeone has implemented some particularly astute managerial techniques to create the greatest squad harmony seen at the Calderon for years.
Despite possessing a bigger squad than Atleti have had in recent seasons, Simeone has tended to reserve those resources for the Europa League whilst maintaining the same core group for La Liga. Significantly, in all eight of the league games Atleti have won they have had the same back five of Thibaut Courtois in goal with Filipe Luis, Miranda, Diego Godin and Juanfran in front of the Belgian.
That has resulted in conceding just nine goals in nine matches, the third fewest in the league, for a team whose Achilles heel has traditionally been the defensive side of the game. Interestingly, unlike many teams in Spain, Atleti have also been quite happy to hand the majority of possession to the opposition, ranking fifth bottom with an average of just 46% and having had less of the ball in six of their nine league games to date. However, they have still had the third highest number of attempts on the opposition goal (15 per game) and the conceded the second lowest on their own (8.9 per game).
The best example of this organised counter-attacking style came in the European Super Cup against a Chelsea side that had until the past weekend gone unbeaten in the Premier League with their new found flair and positive attacking play. However, with Radamel Falcao in red hot form Atleti merely wound the Londoners in before springing forward to expose their obvious flaws without the ball.
Unfortunately for Los Rojiblancos, and those worried about the competitive balance of La Liga, the same old problems mean there almost certainly won’t be a three way title chase come the springtime. Atleti may be in record-breaking form but they have done so by winning games late on by the finest of margins and are still not even top. Instead, it is Barcelona who head the standings having only dropped points against Real Madrid, who were the last team to beat Atleti and the one they haven’t defeated since 1999.
Atleti haven’t yet faced either of the big two and what they do away from home against both in a two-week spell in December will go far to determining just how serious any potential challenge is. However, just winning at Valencia on Saturday and taking one record from the legendary 1996 team would be testament to their development under Simeone.