The days of Atlético Madrid's 14-year winless streak against city rival Real Madrid sure seem like ancient history.
Atlético shelled Real on Saturday, leaving Los Galácticos to stumble back across town as 4-0 losers. It was Real’s worst loss since a 5-0 drubbing against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2010.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti called this defeat his worst in charge of the team (even so, his team maintains a one-point lead over Barcelona and four-point edge over Atlético at the top of La Liga).
The team stacked with global superstars lost to a supposedly inferior side, but one that Ancelotti rightly noted had a better day at every position and in its overall organization.
Atlético proved again that a common team idea trumps a collection of individuals. Diego Simeone’s team brought a superior work rate and tactical plan that delivered swiftly and severely.
Both teams played their usual shape and system, with Atléti matching its stout 4-4-2 against Real’s 4-3-3 attack. Real missed playmaker James Rodríguez and both of its usual center backs, Pepe and Sergio Ramos, due to injury. Starting left back Marcelo missed the game due to yellow-card accumulation.
Atlético lost Koke after just 10 minutes, but substitute Saúl Ñíguez came on to do serious damage, scoring once and inducing an own goal. He proved to be more effective than Real’s replacements, as the makeshift back line faltered repeatedly.
Saúl and Arda Turan spearheaded Atlético’s efforts down both flanks at will, especially exposing the right side as Cristiano Ronaldo stayed higher than Gareth Bale in defense. They combined with overlapping fullbacks Guilherme Siqueira and Juanfran Torres, crossing toward central runners.
Bale and Ronaldo ended up switching flanks through the run of play, seemingly as more of a defensive move than an attack-minded one. Juanfran and Arda Turan tore down the right side repeatedly, and anytime Ronaldo tried to attack, Juanfran neutralized him with ease.
Atlético saved its flair for wide areas in the attacking third, as Tiago and Gabi stayed fairly withdrawn in the middle to change the point of attack and provide good shape in transition. Nearly 35 percent of Atléti’s play went down the right, including the build-up for the first goal.
Juanfran swung the cross in after a deep throw-in. The shot slipped under Real goalkeeper Iker Casillas, whose bizarre technique failed him in the vital moment. For Casillas, this was another soul-crushing defeat after the 5-1 loss to the Netherlands in the World Cup opener.
He couldn’t do much on the second goal just four minutes later, as Saúl hammered home an overhead kick off the post from six yards. It started with some creative combination play down the left flank and a cross from Siqueira. The fullbacks and wingers were both involved down their respective flanks in the first two goals, further emphasizing Atlético’s domination in that area.
Until the second goal, Real looked unusually frantic in both attacking and defensive phases, unable to get comfortable on the ball and exert any control on the match. Atlético drew frustration fouls and played its normal pressing style that creates chaos for opponents but somehow makes sense to Simeone’s troops.
Real grew into the game after conceding twice and remained in control until the third goal.
Atlético reverted to its usual defensive shape and fast transitional play. The wingers withdrew on top of the fullbacks to prevent isolation by Real’s dangerous wingers, Bale and Ronaldo, and a square block of four players clogged the middle.
The combination of Atléti’s low-block 4-4-2 shape and fearless individual defending all over the field held Real to zero shots on target for the first time all season. Strong work rate underscored the home team’s pressure and patience and its ability to transition forward and back quickly.
Forwards Mario Mandžukić and Antoine Griezmann withdrew into their own half as well, both to pressure Real’s distributors and remain close to spring counterattacks. Griezmann in particular constantly chased Real’s back six players and disrupted their rhythm on the ball.
Toni Kroos, Real’s normally reliable organizing midfielder (or pivote in Spanish) maintained 100 percent passing accuracy through 75 minutes, but he mostly sprayed passes square and wide, not forward. Atlético’s defensive discipline left no space for penetrating central passes.
Compared to his performance in a 4-1 win against Real Sociedad two games earlier, Kroos completed a similar percentage of his attempts, but his successful passes angled decisively farther forward against Sociedad. David Moyes’ team plays a similar low-block defensive style, but Kroos broke through it.
Neither Ancelotti nor Pep Guardiola before him at Bayern Munich used Kroos in the No. 6 role for his defensive abilities, despite his usual position at the base of midfield. He’s the pivote because of his ability to start attacks, and if he can’t safely play forward passes, he has to flatten out his service or risk exposing the back line.
As the second half started, Ancelotti replaced Sami Khedira with the more attack-minded Jesé Rodríguez in an effort to continue the team’s late first-half fluidity. Atlético’s third goal, in the 66th minute and somewhat against the run of play, effectively ended the game.
Atlético remained in its low block, content to absorb pressure with a two-goal lead and wait for its opportunities to break forward. Arda Turan clipped a ball diagonally across the penalty area, where Saúl — one of the most influential substitutes this season in La Liga — headed it back across to cause an own goal.
The final dagger came with a minute to play to make it 4-0. Tiago won a ball on the midfield line and played an immediate vertical ball into the right channel for Fernando Torres to chase down.
His quick cross found a diving Mandžukić, whose header nestled inside the near post and capped a final piece of brilliance in transition to punctuate a dominant match for Simeone’s boys.
After decades of playing in the shadows, Atlético once again owns the city of Madrid. Simeone created a team in the workmanlike image of himself and his club, which made its kits out of the same material as red-and-white bedsheets at its inception (thus the Colchoneros, “Mattress-makers,” nickname).
He did it without spending anywhere near as much as his rivals on global superstars; Griezmann was the team’s costliest acquisition at €30 million from Sociedad. To understand Simeone’s philosophy in a nutshell, it’s easiest to refer to one of his memorable lines: “You have to play [matches] with a knife between your teeth on the pitch.”
Along the way, Simeone cultivated a major following and has earned serious accolades as La Liga’s Coach of the Year twice and a finalist for the 2014 FIFA World Coach of the Year.
He broke up the juggernaut Barça-Real duopoly on Spanish titles with the league win last season, and Atlético’s only loss to Real in their last eight meetings came in the Champions League final.
Fans and media have come to expect at least one golden quote from Cholo in press conferences following each new conquest. After defeating Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals, he signed off by congratulating his players’ mothers “because [their sons] were born with such big huevos.”
The players proudly displayed them once again in heavily defeating their fiercest rival on Saturday.