For so many years, decades even, the Madrid derby has been an occasion for Atletico Madrid to feel inferior about themselves. Kept cold in Real Madrid’s shadow, there was very little to warm Atleti when it came to direct confrontations with their closest rivals. With Diego Simeone’s side red hot, though, this was expected to be a very different sort of derby day for the perennial underdogs.
Atletico Madrid came into Saturday’s clash at Valdebebas undefeated in La Liga. They had won seven in a row to rise to the top of the table, taking on the status of title frontrunners for many. A derby victory over Real Madrid would have underlined that status, fundamentally flipping the dynamic of the rivalry between the two capital clubs.
What unfolded on Saturday night, however, was a reality check for Simeone and his players. The 2-0 defeat to Real Madrid doesn’t need to knock Atleti from their stride - they are still top of La Liga and are three points ahead of Real Madrid with a game in-hand - but the manner of the loss and the mistakes made will force reflection in the dressing room.
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Simeone got this one wrong. His decision to play Joao Felix and Luis Suarez as an orthodox two robbed his team of any control in the centre of the pitch. The inclusion of Hector Herrera over Saul Niguez was designed to give Atleti a combative edge against the Real Madrid midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, but this meant Koke was left on his own to play out from deep.
The back five didn’t work. Yannick Carrasco and Kieran Trippier were both non-entities as wing backs, denying Atletico Madrid any sense of width. The first half pressure from Real Madrid was relentless as Atleti had no way to get out when they won the ball back. Simeone suffocated his own team with his team selection.
Three substitutions at half time saw Simeone shift his team into a back four, with Renan Lodi introduced. This gave Atleti an outlet down the left, while Thomas Lemar added some creativity to a midfield unit that was desperately missing that in the opening 45 minutes. But the tone of the contest had already been set by then.
Suarez was kept on the pitch for too long, with Felix hooked before the Uruguayan despite touching the ball just 23 times in 73 minutes - fewer touches than any other player who started the match, including both goalkeepers. Felix reacted angrily to being withdrawn, and with good reason. If anyone in red and white was going to create something out of nothing, it was him. Not Suarez.

Lemar dispara desviado ante la presencia de Courtois en el duelo entre Real Madrid y Atlético

Image credit: Getty Images

After the troubles of the 2019/20 campaign, Simeone has found a system and an approach that works for the group of players he currently has. Significant progress has been achieved this season and Atletico Madrid must still be counted among the potential title challengers at the top of La Liga.
But this was a result that reminded us all of Real Madrid’s powers of recovery. Zidane’s side won La Liga last season without playing that well and with Barcelona nowhere near the title discussion right now, lying in a lowly ninth, it’s entirely possible they could keep their crown through muscle memory.
Atleti have quality, but they don’t have many players who have been in this position before. They certainly don’t have many, if any, who are accustomed to being frontrunners. Even when Atletico Madrid won La Liga in 2014, they did so by harnessing their inherent underdog spirit right until the last day of the season. It was clear in Simeone's side's derby display, they haven’t been here before.

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