“Wanted: A worthy rival for a decent derby.”
So read the banner that was unveiled in the dying minutes of the 2012-13 season’s Madrid Derby at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. Real Madrid had just completed another routine win against their crosstown rivals, defeating Atletico 2-0 to claim their 24th consecutive unbeaten game in the Madrid Derby. The game had been billed as more than ticking in the boxes: Real’s start to the season had been wretched – losing to Sevilla, Getafe, and Betis to put them an absurd nine points behind Barcelona (in a season that saw Barca tie Real’s record of a 100-point La Liga season). Atletico were flying – Europa League and UEFA Supercup winners, the rojiblancos were rejuvenated thanks to the leadership of club legend Diego Simeone and the goals of Radamel Falcao. There were high hopes for the season – legitimate talk of contending for the title against Spain’s duopoly.
And then Madrid won. Easily. With goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil that sealed the victory for Los Blancos.
If the Madrid Derby seemed boring and predictable for the first thirteen seasons of the new millennium, that’s because it was: Atletico would come out flying, concede a goal on a ridiculous defensive error, and then fall to pieces as Real ran riot. Regardless of the result, something always went wrong for Atletico: they’d concede a stupid penalty and get a man sent off, or hit the post in the dying minutes and lose or draw the game, or have a vital player go down the week before with an injury, or accidentally pass the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo. Even if Atletico could frequently put up a fight (and often win) against Barcelona, Valencia, Liverpool, Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, or Chelsea, the simply could not beat Real Madrid. In the time between Atletico victories in the Madrid derby (1999-2013), fifty other teams beat Real Madrid. Before Atletico beat Real in the Copa del Rey final in 2013, their last victory had been fourteen years previous – and Atleti were ultimately relegated at the end of that season.* They were considered cursed – unable to beat their rivals even if everyone else could.
How times have changed.
On Saturday, Atletico Madrid defeated Real 4-0 at the Calderon. Perhaps defeated is the wrong word: they annihilated them. They scored four and, but for dodgy reffing** and several dubious offside calls, could legitimately have had seven or eight. They outshot Real 14-2, created thirteen chances to Real’s three, and bullied, harassed, pressed, and chased them all over the park. Juanfran, Siqueira, and Arda Turan had free reign on the flanks – with Marcelo out, Carvajal tired, and Bale and Ronaldo unable or unwilling to track back to do defensive work, it was open season for Atletico’s wing-players to run forward. The centre-forward pairing of Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann were, once again, magnificent, running riot against Real’s makeshift back-line of Carvajal, Coentrao, Varane, and Nacho. Madrid’s big-money midfield of Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, and Isco looked completely overwhelmed and, even if Atletico’s Koke was (worryingly) withdrawn ten minutes in with a torn thigh muscle, Saul Niguez deputized brilliantly with Gabi and Tiago, marking Isco out of the game and scoring a brilliant bicycle kick to put Atletico 2-0 up.
In previous matchups in the last two seasons, Simeone’s preferred tactic has been to form an impenetrable defensive line, let Real lay siege to their penalty area, and then nick goals on counterattacks and set plays.*** In Diego Godin and Joao Miranda, Simeone has the best defensive pairing on earth (even if FIFPro somehow – absurdly – thinks that David Luiz and Thiago Silva are better), while Tiago, Raul Garcia, Gabi, and Mario Suarez are all capable of forming a shield to the defense that is almost impossible to break down. It’s been a successful strategy, but this was different: Atletico were aggressive in attack, pressed high, rampaged down the flanks, and controlled the game in a manner that Real simply couldn’t handle. This was an Atletico that was proactive, relentless, and merciless.
In six meetings between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid this season, Atletico are unbeaten and have won 4 by an aggregate score of 12-4. They fought a brilliant defensive rearguard at the Bernabeu in the Spanish Supercup, before winning 1-0 at home with an early goal from Mandzukic. They sucker-punched Real at the Bernabeu in September with a late Arda Turan goal to win 2-1 in the league. They knocked Real Madrid out of the Copa Del Rey, with returning son Fernando Torres scoring in the opening minute of each half at the Bernabeu to complete a 4-2 aggregate victory. As Barcelona suffer inconsistency and institutional crisis (President Jose Bartomeu was ordered to court on charges of tax fraud in Neymar’s signing this week), Diego Simeone has made it his mission to break Carlo Ancelotti’s galacticos. He may well succeed: this was Real’s heaviest defeat since Guardiola’s Barcelona obliterated them 5-0 in November 2010. Even if Atletico win nothing this season – they remain four points behind Real in the race for La Liga and were knocked out of the Cup by Barcelona – their sheer dominance of Real Madrid will stand as a fitting testament to the managerial brilliance of Diego Simeone: he has matched their best derby run in history, won the season series for the first time since 1950-51, and forged Atletico into a collective unit that is equally adept at manic, dark arts-laden defending and beautiful attacking football against the best clubs on earth.
Madridistas wanted a decent and exciting derby. They appear to have gotten one.
Always be careful what you wish for.
Cam Climie is Armchair’s lead soccer writer and a Master’s student at Carleton University. His snark, sarcasm, and man-crush on Andres Iniesta can be followed on Twitter at @camclimie.
*to put how long ago that was into perspective: Thibaut Courtois was 7, the Euro didn’t exist, Pep Guardiola was Barcelona captain under Louis Van Gaal (and his assistant Jose Mourinho), Gianluigi Buffon was still at Parma (who still had money), and Netscape Navigator was the hip new platform for browsing the web on your dial-up internet.
**Real Madrid winning iffy penalties while their opponents get denied blatant ones is becoming a theme this season. My view on this is in no way biased.
***Atletico have been far-and-away the most efficient team on setpieces this year, at one point scoring from an absurd 24% of all set plays.