Being top of La Liga is no longer a novelty for Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.
Indeed, seven games into the Spanish football season, the Vicente Calderon club’s hike to the summit of the table has barely made headlines.
The bald statistics totted up from their games no longer make for spectacular reading either. Atletico have netted 12 times and conceded a meagre two goals; that’s nothing out of the ordinary for Simeone’s watertight outfit.
Yet beyond the raw numbers, their rise to the pinnacle of La Liga may possess more significance than at any point since their remarkable run to glory in 2013-14.
During that campaign, and in the the previous one, Atletico were pugnacious, aggressive and determined in all aspects of their play. Their edginess and spirit propelled them to glory in La Liga in 2013-14, to a prolonged title challenge in 2015-16 and to the final of the Champions League in both seasons.
There have been times when Simeone has sought to move away from these entrenched core beliefs, with varying degrees of success. Players like Jackson Martinez, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco and Luciano Vietto were drafted in last summer, the system was changed to a more fluid 4-3-3 and Atletico sought to play a more expansive game. Yet they never slipped into a slick attacking groove.
It was only when Atletico reverted to their established identity they soared up the table and into the Champions League final. But Simeone seems to be keen to oversee a similar sort of transformation.
Kevin Gameiro and Nicolas Gaitan bring attacking variety to Atletico’s play, while the integration of Angel Correa also offers a refreshing new dimension in the final third. Additionally, Simeone has given Koke a consistent chance to shine in a central position; the 24-year-old’s technical flair and cerebral instincts have allowed Atletico to get a stronger grasp on matches.
And watching Atletico, in La Liga and in Europe, there’s are differences in how they plot their attacks. No longer do they solely look to Antoine Griezmann to conjure something wonderful in the final third, there are myriad ways in which they can unpick opponents.
It seems Simeone, for all the remarkable work that’s been done since he took over at the Vicente Calderon, has come to understand the potential limits of his method.
Atletico have crafted an identity as defensive juggernauts that possess a meticulous attention to tactical facets. And at times, that’s a blueprint they may look to adhere to out of necessity. But that’s a style that’s yielded one title in the last three seasons and two narrow losses in the Champions League.
Early in this campaign, Simeone looks to be nudging this precariously balanced structure back towards an attacking emphasis for a second time. So far, he’s making a better go of it too.
As is evidenced by the goals conceded, defensively Atletico remain resolute, with Jan Oblak, outstanding in his own right, protected brilliantly by Diego Godin and Stefan Savic, who in turn are flanked by the energetic pairing of Juanfran and Filipe Luis.
Ahead of them, there’s been more care about Atletico’s attack. Griezmann, who now has ample support in Gameiro, now has freedom to roam, while Koke and Gabi have been able to dictate the tempo of matches excellently; that’s something Atletico struggled with when Real Madrid surrendered possession in the Champions League final last term.
Preserving this status quo for weeks to come will be the biggest challenge for the manager, although there have been positive early signs. Atletico grabbed a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou against Barcelona and when Bayern Munich visited in the Champions League they were comprehensively outplayed by the capital club.
Simeone is an ambitious coach who will always demand more of himself and his players. Of course, he could continue with the same style and tactics, yielding similar results and comparing favourably with the lavish spenders also at the top of the table. But he’ll want to grasp silverware again.
To do so, Atletico need to be more adaptable, more clinical and multi-dimensional in their attacking play. Over the course of a league or Champions League season, different obstacles will present themselves and different antidotes will be required. That’s what’s hindered this team from making that final step at the highest level in the last couple of campaigns.
Simeone will want to oversee this success, especially given there’s a crucial stint in the club’s history approaching. The manager reduced his contract recently, meaning it’ll now expire at the end of the 2017-18 term; by that point Atletico would have been in their new stadium for one season.
Should the iconic coach depart, as anticipated, after that debut term in the Estadio La Peineta, he’ll want his successor to take over not only a winning team, but a varied team too. We may be seeing the beginning of that process in earnest.
200+ Channels With Sports & News
- Starting price: $33/mo. for fubo Latino Package
- Watch Premier League, World Cup, Euro 2024 & more
- Includes NBC, USA, FOX, ESPN, CBSSN & more
Live & On Demand TV Streaming
- Price: $35/mo. for Sling Blue
- Watch Premier League, World Cup & MLS
- Includes USA, NBC, FOX, FS1 + more
Many Sports & ESPN Originals
- Price: $6.99/mo. (or get ESPN+, Hulu & Disney+ for $13.99/mo.)
- Features Bundesliga, LaLiga, Championship, & more
- Also includes daily ESPN FC news & highlights show
2,000+ soccer games per year
- Price: $4.99/mo
- Features Champions League, Serie A, Europa League & NWSL
- Includes CBS, Star Trek & CBS Sports HQ
175 Premier League Games & PL TV
- Starting price: $4.99/mo. for Peacock Premium
- Watch 175 exclusive EPL games per season
- Includes Premier League TV channel plus movies, TV shows & more
- PSG defender Kehrer joins West Ham
- Dubai airport gears up to handle World Cup supporters
- Ronaldo blasts ‘lies’ over Man Utd future
- Where to find Sheffield United vs. Sunderland on US TV
- Where to find Boca Juniors vs. Rosario Central on US TV
- Where to find Dynamo Kyiv vs. Benfica on US TV
- Muscat shrugs off Iniesta threat as Asian Champions League returns
- USMNT World Cup kits real or fake? Combing through the clues
- Brighton sign Ecuador’s Estupinan from Villarreal
- PSV rescue Rangers draw as Obispo spares Benitez’s blushes in Champions League play-offs