Atletico Madrid’s La Liga title triumph in 2013/14 was one of the greatest achievements in modern football history.
Diego Simeone’s outfit, the third team in Spain, came out on top in what was widely considered to be a two-horse race between Barcelona and Real Madrid. While there are plenty of examples of upsets of a similar nature in knockout competitions, Atletico’s title win was undoubtedly more impressive given that it came over the course of a regular 38-game domestic campaign.
Although he had less gifted players to call upon than Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid and Tata Martino at Barcelona, Simeone created a side of fierce competitors who were extremely difficult to play against. There was plenty of quality in the squad too, with Koke, Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois and Arda Turan all truly excellent players, but Simeone’s greatest success was producing a side whose whole was significantly stronger than the sum of its individual parts.
Rather remarkably, Atletico won the league with an average possession of just 49 percent (the figures recorded by other champions that year were 55 by Manchester City, 57 by Bayern Munich, 60 by Paris Saint-Germain and 54 by Juventus). Their approach was based on being extremely well-organised, solid and compact – both from back to front and side to side – in the defensive phase of play before springing forward quickly on the counter-attack when the ball was turned over. There were also plenty of set-piece goals, with Atletico finding the back of the net on an astonishing 24 occasions from dead-ball situations.
Countless players enjoyed terrific seasons, including the aforementioned quartet, but it was no-nonsense centre-back Diego Godin and central midfielder Gabi who best epitomised Atleti’s style: there are far more gifted technicians around than the duo, but their strength, commitment, attitude and endeavour symbolised what Simeone’s charges were all about.
Fast forward two years and, in a sense, little has changed. Atletico are still intense and aggressive, regularly smothering opponents into submission. They have retained that knack of seeming to winning every second ball and 50-50 challenge, and continue to be a horrible team to face.
There are, however, some notable differences between the 2013/14 Atletico and the one currently sitting fourth in the La Liga table, just four points behind Madrid and Barcelona at the summit.
There is greater invention and individual flair in the current group, with Antoine Griezmann, Yannick Ferreria Carrasco, Oliver Torres, Angel Correa all capable of assuming the creative mantle.
While such players are not absolved from their defensive duties and off-the-ball obligations, they have brought more skill and pace to the ranks at the Vicente Calderon; Atletico’s core identity is unchanged, but a dash of extra guile has been added to the solid foundations that were already in place.
Carrasco’s fine goal in the recent 2-1 victory over Valencia perfectly showcased the mix between the old and the new: the Belgian winger won possession back after some aggressive pressing, before dribbling past two players and firing a low drive into the bottom corner.
Barcelona and Madrid remain heavy favourites to finish top of the pile at the end of the campaign. After their astonishing achievements of two seasons ago, though, it would be foolish in the extreme to write Atletico off just yet.
About the Author – Greg Lea
Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.