·26 September 2023
·26 September 2023
On Sunday night Antoine Griezmann had a message for young football fans in the Spanish capital. He asked Madrid’s kids to go to school Monday wearing their red-and-white shirts, to show pride in Atletico Madrid after a derby day to remember.
Atletico overcame Real Madrid 3-1 at the Civitas Metropolitano behind a goal from Griezmann and two from Alvaro Morata. All three goals came from crosses that were then headed beyond the reach of Kepa Arrizabalaga, as Diego Simeone’s men fed off an electric atmosphere to secure one of their most significant wins since switching stadia in 2017.
Here’s how the derby was won and lost, as well as what it could portend for the rest of this season in Spain.
It was a pity not only to see Atletico sell Yannick Carrasco to Saudi side Al-Shabab this summer, but to see the club finalise the transfer four weeks into the season, after the European transfer window had shut for the summer. Simeone regarded Carrasco as an essential player in his 3-5-2 system, and the head coach said multiple times during the preseason that he did not want to lose the Belgian.
But the club didn’t grant Simeone’s wish, so El Cholo got to work reinventing how Atleti attack down the left. The first game without Carrasco saw Atletico thumped by Valencia at Mestalla, but the second game – the dramatic draw in Rome against Lazio – saw 23-year-old Samuel Lino put in a solid 75-minute shift at Carrasco’s left wing-back position. Lino was good enough to retain his place in the 11 for the Madrid Derby, and inside four minutes, he stuck a perfect cross onto Morata’s head to open the scoring.
Lino made five progressive carries and contributed two goal-creating actions on Sunday in addition to making five successful tackles – almost as many as Real Madrid’s entire team. Lucas Vazquez may be a wily and capable veteran, and Fede Valverde is as good an athlete as Madrid have in midfield, but Lino and the bustling Saul Niguez consistently found ways around the pair (Marcos Llorente enjoyed going at the overmatched Fran Garcia on the other flank, too.)
Saul was clearly up for this one, and he responded to the challenge with one of his best games in literal years. The 28-year-old had the first multi-assist game of his career and won three defensive-third tackles. He further registered three clearances and three shot blocks – a true ‘todocampista.’ If Simeone is able to ‘recover’ the Saul of old, the ceiling rises for what Atletico can accomplish this season.
A key moment in the derby took place more than an hour before the game kicked off, when Carlo Ancelotti’s 11 revealed that Real Madrid would start the derby without a true centre-forward. In Los Blancos’ case, this meant a benching for Joselu, the 6’4’ forward who is one of the best in La Liga at winning attacking headers and opening spaces for others.
Without Joselu in the first half, Atletico were able to isolate Jude Bellingham, who had scored six goals from his first six games for his new club and thus endured his first real stumble since moving to Spain over the summer. Bellingham was more impactful around the penalty area in the second half – but by that time, the damage was done, and Ancelotti had played directly into Simeone’s hands.
“We gave (Bellingham) fewer chances to breach our defense,” Simeone told DAZN after full-time. “He often takes advantage of Joselu’s aerial game.”
Of Atletico’s six derby wins in La Liga with Simeone on the touchline, five of them have come against an Ancelotti-managed Madrid side. Sunday’s win brought Simeone’s overall record against Ancelotti to eight wins and eight defeats against five draws. This one featured some masterful management from Atleti’s longtime coach.
El Cholo brought on veterans Axel Witsel and Cesar Azpilicueta in contexts where they could succeed – especially Azpilicueta, who bothered Rodrygo Goes and completed multiple sterling defensive actions. Memphis and Angel Correa added freshness against a beleaguered visiting defense – Memphis nearly added a fourth goal to Atleti’s ledger in second-half stoppage time.
Real Madrid had avoided defeat in 13 of the previous 14 league derbies entering Sunday, but Ancelotti has questions to answer now after Los Vikingos’ 100% record was washed away in a baño at the Metropolitano.
“Maybe I could have done better with the system,” he said post-match. “When the team doesn’t do well, it’s my responsibility.”
The Italian explained defensive midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni needed to rest after a busy start to the season in which the 23-year-old started each of the first five league games and played 180 minutes for France over the international break. This meant Toni Kroos and Luka Modric started together for the first time since June. The plan backfired – Atletico went ahead early, continued to apply pressure, and Modric was removed at halftime after picking up a card for arguing with referee Alberola Rojas.
“Joselu didn’t play because we thought we’d have more control with another midfielder there,” Ancelotti said. “Kroos and Modric both started because of the need for another midfielder.”
In some sense, Madrid did have ‘control,’ managing 63% possession and 20 shot attempts to Atletico’s 10. The visitors had nine attempts in the box, and they attempted 654 passes to Atletico’s 384. But so many of those passes were lateral, too far away from Jan Oblak’s net to threaten him. And those nine shots in the penalty area totaled just 0.58 expected goals, with Oblak getting down to snag a Valverde header near the goal line in the first half and slapping away a Brahim Diaz shot from a tough angle as the game entered its final stages. It’s fitting that the only time Madrid were able to breach the home defence was through Kroos’ 20-yard bullet into the bottom corner on 35 minutes.
One look at Griezmann’s touch map probably makes this point for me, but Atleti’s organised and committed defending ultimately won this derby against a ponderous, laboured Madrid.
The past two seasons have seen La Liga champions crowned by huge margins. Two years ago, Real Madrid were mathematically champions with five weeks to spare. Last season, FC Barcelona clinched the title with four games still to play. Both teams boasted double-digit margins over second place – and neither even needed 90 points to finish first.
While the last two-team title race took place three years ago, you have to go back even farther for the previous three-team fight for the title. Atletico, Barcelona, and Real Madrid all entered the penultimate matchday of the 2015/16 season with a chance to win La Liga, but Los Rojiblancos slipped up at Levante and Barca held on to win the league despite Madrid’s 12-game winning streak to end the season. The final point totals: 91 points for Barca, 90 for Madrid, and 88 for third-place Atleti.
La Liga is a different competition now. Gone are the days of 100-point leagues and the Clasico clubs notching 100-plus goals apiece. La Liga has been impacted severely by a talent drain that has flattened out the overall competition level – which has sprung more surprise results and brought a touch more parity.
Madrid this season are wracked by injuries amid a transition into a new era, but the 35-time champions still possess difference-making talent in Bellingham, Rodrygo, and Vinicius Jr. Some believe Atletico have the best squad from top to bottom, yet it’s entirely uncertain whether Simeone will have his full complement of players at any point this season. And up in Catalonia, Barcelona’s new additions are stepping up even as its defence continues to falter, perhaps setting the stage for another three-team title battle to remember in 2024.