MILAN – They may come from the same city, but Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid are worlds apart.
On the one hand, there’s the aristocrats with their 10 European titles and 32 league titles, the richest club in the world with their home just a couple of miles up the Castellana from the Prado, whose main problem is working out which of their galaxy of stars to leave out of the starting lineup. And on the other are the scrappers from Arganzuela, with two defeats in European Cup finals and 10 league titles (but just one in the last 20 years), a side for whom selling on their best players is both an unavoidable reality and a necessity.
The urchins-against-grandees narrative entering Saturday's Champions League final (2:45 p.m., FOX) can be overplayed–Atletico is, after all, the 15th most valuable club in the world according to the latest Forbes list–but, still, there’s no doubting the distance that lies between the clubs in approach, something that is, at least in part, financially driven.
Real Madrid, as ever under Florentino Perez, continues its celebrity approach, something that has left it with a hopelessly unbalanced squad that finds no room for James Rodriguez in a putative first team. Casemiro’s development has at least given it a defensive midfield presence, but it is still very reliant on Luka Modric, sublimating his technical skills to his tactical intelligence, to fill in the gaps.
Against that is the remorseless team-driven approach of Diego Simeone at Atletico. He is a manager straight from the Argentinian school of anti-futbol–it was the father of anti-futbol, Vittorio Spinetto, who gave him his nickname "Cholo" during his time in the youth ranks at Velez Sarsfield–believing in work rate and discipline and prepared to engage in the darker arts, something highlighted in the recent league game against Malaga when he stopped a counter-attack by having an additional ball thrown on the pitch.
His first success as a manager came with Estudiantes, building on the foundations left by Carlos Bilardo, the high priest of pragmatic football. It is that side that won the apertura in 2006 that Simeone still says best represents his ideal of what football should be. Yet to paint him as somebody who is successful largely because he is more cynical than everybody else, while it may carry an element of truth, is to do him a great disservice. His management of change has been remarkable.
When a team like Atletico has success, inevitably bigger clubs look to skim off its best players. Sometimes, if the club is canny with its signings, it can survive a season or two, but eventually the attrition takes hold.
The process did for Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund and it will probably ultimately do for Simeone at Atletico. But not yet–and he has already effectively rebuilt his whole side once.
Of the 18 players who were in the matchday squad when Atletico lost to Madrid in the Champions League final two years ago, only five are likely to be involved on Saturday.
There is also the sense that while Simeone’s ethos remains unchanged, his style is evolving. The typical way of playing for Atletico, particularly in big games, is to sit men deep behind the ball and look to burst forward on the break. Koke is a master of springing counters–he has set up 10 goals for the front two of Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann this season–while Saul Niguez, as he showed against Bayern in the semifinal, is capable of moments of explosive individual skill while still retaining a sense of discipline on the right side of midfield.
But this season Atletico has begun to press far more. Regains in the central third and in Atletico’s attacking third, for instance, have gone up 24% this season. Its approach is changing, and it was that capacity to play high up the pitch that seemed to confound Bayern in the first leg of the semifinal.
Although Real Madrid has won the last two meetings in European competition–in the final two seasons ago and in the quarterfinal last season–Atletico is unbeaten in its last six derbies in the league. Simeone seems to relish the opportunity to pit his workers, his side that maximizes every scrap of its resources, against the indulgence of Madrid.
But Madrid is a changed side from the one that lost 1-0 at home to Atletico at the end of February. It may have been fortunate with the draw in the Champions League, and a record of not having conceded at home in Europe this season obscures how open it was against both Wolfsburg and Roma, but league play has suggested Zinedine Zidane has had a positive impact. Twelve successive wins in La Liga created a title race where there hadn’t been one.
Madrid, though, is never just about the manager, and there remains an imbalance in the squad that Zidane, even with Casemiro and Modric in harness, may not be able to overcome. It’s the curse of the wealthy in football, the urge to play with style and glamour overcoming more practical considerations like balance. It’s not an attitude with which Simeone will ever have much sympathy.