Atletico Madrid’s recent league form could barely look any more quintessentially Atleti. Indeed, Diego Simeone’s side are currently on a seven-game winning run in La Liga with clean sheets in six of those matches. Two of the last three have been won 1-0, a scoreline that came to define ‘Cholismo’ at the peak of its powers.
Of course, it’s been a while since Atletico Madrid had these powers. ‘Cholismo’ has been on the wane in recent seasons, with Simeone’s side only just salvaging a third place finish last term from a campaign that had them outside the top four until after lockdown. Much discussion has been had over an apparent need to develop into a more expansive, modern outfit.
This season, however, those discussions have been rendered irrelevant. Atleti are sitting top of La Liga with two games in-hand over second place Real Sociedad. Should they win those games, Simeone’s men would have an advantage of seven points. Real Madrid trail them by six points having played a game more, while Barcelona are 12 points short of the capital club.
‘Cholismo’ is founded on the notion that Atletico Madrid are natural underdogs, but as things stand in La Liga they have the look of frontrunners. Saturday’s Madrid derby presents Atleti with an opportunity to underline this status. Given recent form, they must be considered favourites to claim a home win over Real Madrid.
Many of the qualities and traits that saw Atletico Madrid shock Spanish soccer by winning the title in 2013/14 have returned to the side this season. There is no stronger defensive unit in the European game right now. Simeone has shifted between an orthodox back four and a back three depending on the opponent, but flying full backs remain fundamental to the system in either formation.
Atleti had Juanfran and Felipe Luis in those positions back in 2013/14 and Simeone has Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier this season. Trippier in particular has flourished into a key figure, with the Englishman contributing two excellent assists in the 2-0 win over Real Valladolid that took his team to the top of La Liga. His deliveries from the right give Atleti a different dimension.
Koke has been back to his best this season, while Thomas Lemar is finally finding a level of performance befitting of the €60 million fee Atletico Madrid paid for him. The transformation of Marcos Llorente from a holding midfielder into an attacking force of nature has been another factor in Atleti’s recent rise. He is playing the Arda Turan role.
There are, however, many differences between the 2013/14 team and this one. Defensives similarities aside, Atletico Madrid play a more expansive style of soccer than they did six years ago. This is largely down to the influence of Joao Felix, who after a difficult first season in Spain has become the attacking hub Atleti thought he would be when paying a club record €128 million for him last year.
Antoine Griezmann was notable in his absence at Atleti last season. Felix struggled at first to fill the void left behind by the Frenchman, but the 21-year-old already has eight goals and three assists to his name this season. The signing of Luis Suarez has given Felix a strike partner to play off and play around. There is an air of Diego Costa-Griezmann about the understanding they have forged.
In typical Simeone fashion, no great declarations of ambition have been made at the Wanda Metropolitano, even as Atleti have risen to the top of La Liga. “The most important things we value about the growth of footballers from last season to this one is being seen,” Simeone said after the win over Barcelona last month.
“We are working better on the pitch, we are being more complicit to share what the team needs and we see it. The group generates enthusiasm for me, because I see them wanting to look for important things, game by game.”
Game by game, though, Atletico Madrid are stretching their lead at the top of the table. It’s still early in the season, but there’s no hard evidence to suggest Simeone’s side can’t go all the way. Barcelona and Real Madrid’s struggles have opened the door for an outsider and Atleti are striding their way through it.
How to Watch Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid
The Madrid derby takes place this Saturday, with kickoff slated for 2:50 pm ET. In the US, fans can watch on the tv channel beIN Sports, which is accessible on fuboTV where users can live stream Atleti vs Real.
Date: Saturday, December 12
Kickoff Time: 2:50 pm ET
TV Channel: beIN Sports
Live Stream: fuboTV (watch La Liga for free)