Where does Simeone find these men?
My weekend was officially slated to begin with the London derby between Tottenham and Arsenal. After flinging the remote by the full-time whistle in the now recurring fit of frustration whenever Arsenal dares me to dream and then inevitably lets me down, I completely forgot that the real derby of the weekend is yet to begin. And by the time I did realise that, Atletico were 2-0 up against Real Madrid.
I had been hoping that Real would lose some points either against Sevilla or Atletico so that Barcelona can catch up. Real Madrid’s form has been patchy at best from the beginning of this year. Losing to Valencia to bring an end to their 22-match winning streak, struggling against relegation candidate Cordoba, knocked out of the cup by Atletico – 2015 has not been kind to Ancelotti’s men. Statistically, not much damage was done. They were still leaders of the league, still in the Champions League. It was not exactly a crisis, but the well-oiled machine that is Real Madrid was making squeaky noises.
But 4-0, really? Not even Diego Simeone would have imagined that, I am sure! Watching the later half of the match, it was as if Atleti were playing against school boys in white uniforms. No exaggeration. Real registered one shot on target, a volley from Illaramendi, after he met a lobbed up header resulting from a corner. Nothing from open play. Atletico meanwhile, were creating chance after chance at the other end.
It is fair to say that Real were missing first choice defenders Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, and therefore, their defence wasn’t the tightest. But an attack featuring Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, Isco, Kroos and later Jese surely is capable of more than one shot on target. And this is where Atletico’s actual strength lies – in their defensive organisation, their vigour and intensity.
To those who follow La Liga, at least from a distance, Atletico Madrid’s seasons can generally be identified with their star strikers. I guess it all began with Torres (I got into football late), then there was the Forlan – Aguero duo, then there was Falcao, then Diego Costa, now I guess it’s Griezmann – Mandzukic (may not be as deadly as their predecessors, but there is still time). This suggests that Atletico is not as ill-advised in the transfer market as, let’s say, Barcelona. Consequently, they were a good team, a dangerous team which could upset big teams on their night, win the odd cup trophy. But they were never the same kind of force that they are now. What has changed? That’s fairly obvious – Diego Simeone.
A better question would be – what has Diego Simeone changed? That’s the million dollar one. He seems to have created a system and a team ethic which will grind out results, come what may. Diego Costa and David Villa out – Mandzukic and Griezmann in. Filipe Luis out – Guilherme Siqueira in (who?). Diego Godin suspended – no problem, Jose Maria Gimenez in. Koke, the gem of Atletico’s academy, the future midfield engine of Spain, injured after 10 minutes against Real Madrid – let’s bring on 20-year old Saul Niguez so that he can score a brilliant bicycle kick to make it 2-0. I mean, what the heck?
Whosoever the eleven people are, as long as they are wearing Atletico jerseys, the spectacle is the same. High-intensity, do-or-die style football. Real couldn’t handle that kind of pressure and intensity, and crumbled. Every time a white-jerseyed player got the ball, he was robbed off it within 10 seconds or surrounded by at least 2 red-and-white striped ones. There is a general perception that Atletico take it to the limit when it comes to their physical style of play on the pitch. To an extent, it is true, but also legal. You can see that every player is like a hound out for blood, no one lets their guard down even for a minute.
There was a piece of commentary during the derby which was humorous, yet revealing. Having come on as a substitute with the score 3-0, Raul Garcia angrily argues with the referee over a silly foul on him to which one of the commentator says ‘There is really no need for Raul Garcia to argue angrily like that in these dying minutes. All they need to do is bide the time and not get any yellow or risk anything’, to which the other commentator replies with a laugh ‘I think you are asking too much of Garcia. I have never seen him not being angry’. While Raul Garcia is indeed on the extreme side of things, he really is a reflection of the fire that is burning through this Atletico side.
Amusingly enough, I am reminded of a dialogue in the movie ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, in which one of the character says and I am paraphrasing ‘Bane’s men would die before talking (to the police/Batman)’, to which the other one says ‘Where does he find these men?’
I have a similar question – Where does Simeone find these men? And what on earth does he tell his players in his pep talk, especially to Fernando Torres?
Watch out for Atletico in Europe. The current European champions couldn’t beat them on six occasions this season.