Toward the end of July, Atletico Madrid beat Real Madrid 7-3 in a preseason friendly. Diego Costa scored four goals and was then sent off, and at one point Atletico led 6-0. As a sign that this might not be a normal season in La Liga, it was glaring. The pattern for the season was set: Real Madrid in an awkward transition, Atletico on the brink of an exciting new age, exemplified by the $137.5 million Portuguese wonderkid Joao Felix. But the pattern has not played out straightforwardly. Going into the first Madrid derby of the season, it is Real that tops the table.
Zinedine Zidane has done this before, of course. As a coach, he leaves barely a trace, and yet with three Champions Leagues and one of the two league titles Madrid has won in the past 11 years is its most successful coach since Vicente Del Bosque. To try to pin down precisely what he does, though, what his favored style of play is, is almost impossible. At best, he is a facilitator, which is fine. Not every coach has to be a philosopher, and there can be no doubting the effectiveness of many of the substitutions Zidane has made. It may be the case that with a squad of exceptional footballers, a facilitator is what is required. But that does then place a premium on getting the recruitment right and ensuring the squad is good enough not to require the sort of precise instruction that characterizes the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.
Whether Madrid has recruited well this summer is debatable. Its technical committee compiled a damning report in the summer, suggesting that the new acquisitions not only haven’t made a putative first team any stronger but haven’t even strengthened the squad. Such assessments are necessarily speculative, but it’s clear that Madrid has found the transition to a post-Cristiano Ronaldo age difficult. When your entire gameplan has, for years, been based around feeding one particular star, of course the adjustment takes time.
But the recent 3-0 defeat away to Paris Saint-Germain in Champions League raised deeper questions. The midfield looked old and slow. There was a time when Luka Modric and Toni Kroos gave Madrid a measure of control with the calmness of their passing, but Modric is 34 now and missed that game, while Kroos, although only 29, played like a player a decade older. James Rodriguez, who took Modric’s place, seemed like a luxury Madrid could not afford, and the result was that Casemiro was overrun.
Nobody should think that three successive league victories mean the problems have gone away, but last Sunday’s 1-0 win at Sevilla has at least eased the sense of crisis. Karim Benzema scored the only goal, as so often providing a lifeline for Zidane, but almost as important was the fact that Eden Hazard, very much a Zidane signing, at last began to show signs of settling. Gareth Bale, though, who Zidane bluntly wanted to offload in the summer, remains Madrid’s most consistent attacking player this season.
The whole forward line was changed for the midweek win over Osasuna, and again there was reasons for cautious optimism. Luka Jovic started to show his class, while Vinicius Junior and teenage substitute Rodrygo both gave exciting glimpses of their potential. This is far from a great Madrid squad, but at least now it is possible to see some kind of future.
Then there's Atletico. After winning its first three league games, it seems to be suffering from the sort of inconsistency that so often afflicts sides that make so many changes, particularly when it comes as part of an attempt to change an overall approach. You don't lose the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Diego Godin, Rodri, Lucas Hernandez, Juanfran and Filipe Luis and not endure some hiccups along the way. The Champions League exposed its frailty on the counter, and it was notable that having gone 2-0 down at home to Juventus, its comeback to draw 2-2 was inspired by two headers from corners–a return to the classic values of Atletico under Diego Simeone.
Costa’s form has been of some concern. His goal against Mallorca on Wednesday was his first of the season, while Alvaro Morata’s needless red card in that game means he will be absent for Saturday's derby through suspension. Atletico’s only two official wins against Real in their past 10 meetings have been one in extra time in the UEFA Super Cup last season and in the second leg of the 2017 Champions league semifinal after already losing 3-0 in the first leg.
Victory Saturday would take Atletico above Real Madrid in the table, but, more importantly, in the long term it might reassert the template established in preseason.