Atletico Madrid’s constant battle to match Real, Barcelona

Alex Kirkland

Rodrigo Faez

Sep 22, 2023, 05:14 AM ET

At the start of every season, LaLiga fans ask the same question: Will this be yet another head-to-head title race between the two giants, Real Madrid and Barcelona? Or will Atletico Madrid mount a serious third-party challenge for the crown?

Over the past 10 years, Atletico have consistently punched above their weight. Under coach Diego Simeone they’ve won the league twice — in 2014 and 2021 — and finished second in 2018 and 2019, breaking up the big two. They haven’t finished outside the top three since 2012.

It’s the most consistent spell in the club’s history, but improved performance has raised expectations. Atletico are now expected to compete for the LaLiga title — or at least stay within touching distance of Madrid and Barca, pushing them all season long. Atletico are also expected to reach the latter stages of the Champions League, as they did in 2014 and 2016 when they made it through to the final.

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Last season saw Atletico at both their best and their worst. In LaLiga they put together an exceptional second half of the campaign, picking up 43 points in 18 games — five more than league winners Barca. But in the Champions League, they crashed out at the group stage for just the second time in a decade.

Ahead of Sunday’s derby with Real Madrid, ESPN examines Atletico’s prospects this season, their reasons for optimism and some worrying signs from the campaign so far.

Take a look at Atletico’s past three results, and you’ll be scratching your head trying to draw any conclusions.

They won 7-0 at Rayo Vallecano on Aug. 28, their biggest league win since 2016. A statement win, you might call it. Four different forwards — Antoine Griezmann, Memphis Depay, Álvaro Morata and Ángel Correa — got on the scoresheet. A team known for their stifling defensive mindset under Simeone now looked like they were having fun.

Two weeks later, an unrecognisable Atletico lost 3-0 to Valencia, a team tipped for relegation. Simeone called it “possibly the weakest game since I’ve been at the club,” a run that began almost 12 years ago, when he took charge in December 2011. The result leaves Atletico on seven points from four matches, eight points behind leaders Real, albeit with a game in hand.

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On Tuesday, Atletico were seconds away from seeing out a valuable 1-0 win at Lazio in their opening Champions League Group E game when goalkeeper Ivan Provedel headed in a spectacular, 95th-minute equaliser for the Serie A side. It was a special moment for Lazio and great fun for the neutrals, but a disaster for an Atletico side desperate to avoid a repeat of last season’s group stage struggle.

So an effortless win, a shambolic defeat and a draw that was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons, all in quick succession. Will the real Atletico Madrid please stand up?

Atletico fans have got used to extreme highs and lows. Simeone has certainly raised the standard at the club, but for every remarkable LaLiga title or big European night, there’s an embarrassing Copa del Rey defeat to a lower-league team — Cornella in 2021, Cultural Leonesa in 2020 — or a desperate scramble to salvage a season with a top-four finish.

There’s also a constant tension between Simeone’s underdog instincts — expressed through his conservative, safety-first approach — and Atletico’s reality as the established third force in Spanish football, Champions League regulars with a 70,000-capacity stadium.

In recent years, a familiar pattern has emerged. “The team will adopt a more attractive, attacking style,” the story goes. “Simeone is evolving. There will be room for flair as well as function.” These ideas are reflected in transfer business, as Atletico sign players who suggest a change of mindset: stylish midfielder Thomas Lemar arrived from Monaco for a €70 million fee in 2018, with precocious forward João Félix arriving for a club-record €126m in 2019.

Then as the season goes on and pressure starts to build because Atletico’s financial health depends on Champions League qualification — something Simeone has achieved for 11 years in a row — the team goes back to basics and more defensive football.

Once Antoine Griezmann’s loan to Atletico Madrid became permanent, manager Diego Simeone was able to build his squad around the Frenchman. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The 2022-23 season brought additional complications. Every team had to get used to the idea of a midseason World Cup in Qatar, but Atletico seemed particularly affected, dropping points in half their LaLiga games before the break in November.

A number of players — like Argentina’s Rodrigo de Paul and Nahuel Molina, for example — seemed more focused on being fit and eligible for their national teams. Picking up an injury and missing the chance to join Lionel Messi’s quest for World Cup glory didn’t bear thinking about. “A lot of them were distracted,” a source close to the dressing room told ESPN.

The World Cup wasn’t Atletico’s only early season handicap. A dispute with Barcelona over the terms of a deal to make Griezmann’s loan permanent saw the club’s leadership even ask Simeone to bench his star player as a negotiating tactic. Atletico were obliged to pay Barca €40m if Griezmann played 45 minutes or more in half of the matches for which he was available, a fee they were reluctant to meet.

By October, a compromise had been reached with Barca and Simeone was free to build the team around Griezmann, who responded by becoming the best, most influential outfield player in LaLiga, racking up 15 goals and 16 assists in 2022-23. “Antoine is essential,” a source close to the dressing room told ESPN. “He’s an example for everyone. He’s the first to defend, and the first to attack. He’s very important for the group and for [Simeone].”


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Griezmann fits into a long-term tactical shift which began in 2020, when Simeone began switching from the rigid 4-4-2 formation he favoured earlier in his reign to a more versatile 3-5-2. It’s a system which allows for defensive solidity while getting the best out of attacking wingbacks like Kieran Trippier, who had been key to the 2021 league title win, but left for Newcastle last year, and Yannick Carrasco, who left for Saudi Arabia this month, and Molina.

There was also a concerted effort, starting in January 2023, to move on players who had lost faith or didn’t fit into the Simeone project. Club-record signing João Félix was first on the list, loaned to Chelsea before joining Barcelona this summer. He admitted this week that he “didn’t adapt to the club’s, or the coach’s, ideas.”

“With Cholo, you’re either with him or you’re not,” a source close to the dressing room told ESPN using Simeone’s nickname “Cholo,” which he received in his youth playing days. “There are no shades of grey. When there’s somebody who doesn’t want to be at the same level as the rest of the group, the collective ends up resenting it. Everybody giving 100% is key. No black sheep.”

It’s might be no coincidence that alongside Felix, fellow Portuguese speakers Felipe, Matheus Cunha and Renan Lodi have also left the club this year.

With the World Cup in the past, Griezmann fully assimilated and dissenting voices exiled, Atletico put together a 13-game unbeaten run between January and April 2023. The streak meant they finished third, 11 points behind champions Barcelona and one behind Real Madrid — their poor start had left them with too much to do — but with a sense of clarity and confidence ahead of this season.

“Last year at the start it was hard for us,” Griezmann told journalists on a call organised by ESPN and LaLiga last month. “After the World Cup, everyone thought about what they’d done well or done badly. We came back with a desire to improve … We have the group, the coach and the fans to do something big and we’ll aim as high as possible.”

This summer’s transfer market was important, strengthening Atletico with the arrival of a level-headed, veteran leader like César Azpilicueta, and the club managing to keep De Paul and Molina. But the loss of Carrasco was a blow, as was the failure to sign a deep-lying midfielder.

“Our idea is to sign a central midfielder to strengthen in that area of the pitch,” CEO Miguel Angel Gil said in August. They didn’t. And an injury crisis means Atletico now go into Sunday’s derby with Real Madrid alarmingly short in midfield.



Memphis Depay scores stunning goal from distance for Atletico Madrid

Memphis Depay puts a beautiful goal in the top right corner to give Atletico Madrid the lead.

Captain Koke has been absent since he was injured just seven minutes into the new season. De Paul was hurt on international duty with Argentina. Lemar suffered an Achilles tendon rupture in the Valencia game. Pablo Barrios and Axel Witsel both went off with discomfort in Rome.

A home win against Real Madrid, who have a 100% record so far, would get Atletico’s season back on track. Defeat would leave them with an 11-point deficit, an unwelcome reminder of last season’s slow start. Either way, Simeone will stick to his infamous “partido a partido,” or “game by game” mantra.

“You know what our philosophy is,” midfielder Saúl Ñíguez said at a LaLiga event last week. “Whenever we’ve thought long-term, we’ve got it wrong, we’ve made mistakes. We don’t want that to happen again … We’ll see at the end of the season if we’re candidates, or favourites, or whatever our level is.”

Even after a decade of going toe-to-toe with Real Madrid and Barcelona, there’s a reluctance at Atletico to take that as the status quo, or to accept the idea of a level playing field.

“We’re never candidates for anything,” a source close to the dressing room told ESPN. “We have to be ready for when Barca and Madrid slip up. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen every year.”


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