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Atlético saved its flair for wide areas in the attacking third, as Tiago and Gabi stayed fairly withdrawn in the middle to change the point of attack and provide good shape in transition.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.
GALLERY: Tifos around the world
Best soccer tifos from around the world
Galatasaray fans display a sensational "Rocky" tifo ahead of their clash against rival Fenerbahce. It didn't inspire a victory, though. The Turkish rivals played to a 0-0 draw.
Borussia Dortmund fans channel their 1963 cup triumph over Benfica ahead of the teams' second leg in the Champions League round of 16 at Signal Iduna Park.
Hapoel Be'er Sheva fans turn to Moses for tifo inspiration, with his splitting the Red Sea illustrating how "impossible is nothing" in their Europa League series against Besiktas.
Fans of Tunisia's Club Africain display this pointed tifo at a friendly against PSG, whose Qatari owners have pumped millions and millions into the club.
U.S. fans in Columbus, Ohio, make a "One Nation, One Team" statement ahead of the USMNT's World Cup qualifying match against Mexico on November 11, 2016.
Germany fans display their heart for the team colors ahead of a World Cup qualifier against Czech Republic in October 2016.
Italy fans spell out their support for the Azzurri ahead of a massive World Cup qualifier vs. Spain in October 2018.
Iceland fans keep up their world-famous passion for the national team during a World Cup qualifier against Turkey in October 2016.
Fans in the United Arab Emirates set their sights on reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia during a qualifying match vs. Australia in September 2016.
Colombia fans send a massive jersey around the stadium during a World Cup qualifier vs. Venezuela in September 2016.
Seattle Sounders fans turn to Game Of Thrones for inspiration in a game against the Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps in September 2016.
Djurgardens fans go all out in Sweden for a match against AIK in September 2016.
Zulte Waregem fans prepare Kortrijk for the absolute worst in this Belgian top-flight match in September 2016.
Seattle Sounders fans turn their pop culture reference to Poltergeist in March 2016 ahead of the season home opener against Sporting Kansas City.
The Timbers Army doubles down on their Eastbound and Down theme, adding another wrinkle during the club's MLS Western Conference final first leg vs. FC Dallas on November 22, 2015 at Providence Park.
Fans make a French flag tifo at Wembley Stadium during the singing of Le Marseillaise ahead of England's friendly vs. France, which took place days after the terrorist attacks in Paris.
The Timbers Army referenced Eastbound & Down's Kenny Powers with their "Cup Bound and Down" tifo for the Portland Timbers' MLS playoff elimination game against Sporting Kansas City on October 29, 2015.
Brondby IF fans display a gladiator holding up a lion's head during the team's Danish Alka Superliga match against FC Copenhagen, whose logo is a lion's head, on September 27, 2015.
New England Revolution fans equate Jermaine Jones to Indiana Jones on their quest to capture the 2015 MLS Cup on September 26, 2015.
New England Revolution fans display a Lion King theme in honor of Orlando City FC's first visit to Gillette Stadium on September 5, 2015.
Red Bulls fans take a shot at NYCFC's two summer arrivals, 37-year-old Frank Lampard and 36-year-old Andrea Pirlo, ahead of their third MLS meeting of 2015.
Germany fans in Cologne salute their World Cup champions ahead of a friendly against the United States in June, 2015.
Real Madrid fans went all out prior to the second leg of the 2014-15 Champions League semifinal vs. Juventus.
Lazio fans display a stunning eagle tifo ahead of the Rome derby against AS Roma in their penultimate Serie A match of the 2014-15 season.
Barcelona fans bid farewell to veteran midfielder Xavi with this banner at his last league game at Camp Nou before he departs for Qatari club Al Sadd.
Fans at Anfield pay tribute to Steven Gerrard in his final home match as a Liverpool player in May 2015.
Juventus fans state their case to beat Real Madrid in the 2014-15 Champions League semifinals and reach the final in Berlin.
Fans at Benfica's Estadio da Luz remind rival Porto who the Primeira Liga reigning champion is during an April 2015 match in Portugal.
New York Red Bulls fans send a pointed message to their NYCFC counterparts prior to the teams' first MLS meeting in May, 2015.
Inter Milan's Curva Nord announces its presence ahead of the April 2015 Derby della Madonnina–the annual clashes between city rivals Inter and AC Milan.
Bayern Munich fans implore their club to (translated) "Never give up" in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg vs. Porto. Bayern then turned a 3-1 first-leg deficit into a 7-4 aggregate win and a place in the semifinals.
Dortmund fans commemorate their 1997 Champions League trophy in the club's clash vs. Juventus–the opponent on the wrong side of that title bout.
Portland Timbers fans speak out against homophobia with this tifo in a 2013 match against Chivas USA
Atletico's supporters display a banner reading "Atleti crushes" before the Spanish league match between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid,
Borussia Dortmund fans put on a remarkable display ahead of a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg match.
Brondby IF fans unveil a tifo ahead of a match in Denmark against Randers FC.
FC Barcelona fans display a huge banner in memory of former head coach Tito Vilanova.
Galatasaray fans support their team during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Borussia Dortmund and Galatasaray at the Turk Telekom Arena in Istanbul.
The American Outlaws unveil a huge tifo ahead of a 2014 World Cup send-off match between the USA and Turkey at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
Marseille's supporters use paper sheets to create an "OM" (Olympique de Marseille) tifo at the beginning of the French L1 football match between Marseille and Genoble.
Seattle Sounders fans display their tifo that shows coach Sigi Schmid playing cards and holding a Royal Flush before a match against the Portland Timbers.
Panathinaikos Athens fans display a banner during the UEFA Europa League match against Dynamo Moscow.
Fans of the Saudi Al-Hilal team celebrate after the scoring of a goal against Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor.
Seattle Sounders fans unveil a tifo inspired from the “Build a Bonfire” chant, featuring Sounder players holding torches on horseback ahead of a game against the Portland Timbers.
Fans of Hertha BSC before the Bundesliga match between Hertha BSC and Werder Bremen in Berlin.
Sporting Kansas City fans channel their inner Mario ahead of the 2013 MLS Cup final vs. Real Salt Lake.
Brondby IF fans.
Thousands of Barcelona fans hold up cards to spell out "Barca! Orgull," which translates to "Barcelona pride" ahead of a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich at Camp Nou.
Fans raise a tifo celebrating “Community, Club and Country” ahead of a CONCACAF Gold Cup match between the USA and Belize in Portland, Oregon.
Vitesse fans unfurl a massive Eagle banner at the Dutch Eredivisie match against Ajax at the GelreDome.
Valencia fans drape a banner featuring a king for a Copa del Rey ("The King's Cup) match against Atletico Madrid.
Juventus fans make a statement in Turin in a match vs. Inter Milan.
Dortmund fans put on another strong display at a Bundesliga match against Mainz 05.
German fans boast the newest star earned by the national team, symbolizing its 2014 World Cup triumph, at a Euro 2016 qualifying match in Dortmund.
Real Madrid fans make a point to display the club's 10 European championships ahead of the October 2014 clash against rival Barcelona at the Bernabeu.
San Jose Earthquakes fans unleash a massive tifo to mark the opening of Avaya Stadium, MLS's newest soccer-specific venue, in March 2015.
Barcelona fans show all who the real 12th man is ahead of the March 2015 Clásico vs. Real Madrid.
Ahead of a clash with Mexican foe Monterrey, Tigres players are treated by this message by its fervent supporters.
Standard Liege fans have a pointed message for Steven Defour, who departed the club for Belgian rival Anderlecht.
Orlando City fans mark their club's inaugural MLS game vs. fellow expansion side New York City FC with a statement that the Lions' "reign begins now."
Real Madrid fans salute Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo after he captured the most prestigious individual prize in world soccer again.
Vitesse fans pay homage to Operation Market Garden ahead of an Eredivisie match against SC Heerenveen.
Sevilla's fans deploy a giant banner in the stands before the UEFA Europa league final match between Benfica and Sevilla.
Fans in Liverpool’s Kop End at Anfield commemorate those lost in the Hillsborough disaster.
Lyon fans during a game against Saint Etienne.