If you drive west around Madrid, the city’s very own wacky racetrack, the M30, still takes you underneath the main stand at the stadium that was Atletico Madrid’s home for fifty years. The rest of it, though, has almost gone. Walls have been torn down, cables ripped out, a digger standing on the rubble of the old place where the pitch used to be. The bar that celebrated the double has gone, shutters down, and so has Resino’s place.
Soon they will start on the main stand, too, where the sign is already rusting and windows have gone, and then there will be nothing. It is a sorry sight but it is progress, or so they say, and most are pretty happy with their new stadium, over twenty kilometres away on the other side of the city.
Everything feels different now, including Atlético themselves, which means that the derby does too. Especially this year. This, after all, the game that they liked to portray as the people against the power. It wasn’t entirely true, of course, but it was an attractive story, one that gave them a moral dimension — this game means more — and there was something in it. On the Madrid Monopoly board, the road that the Bernabéu stands on, the Paseo de la Castellana, is dark blue: their Park Lane. Atlético’s stadium doesn’t have a street on the board; it stood at the end of Melancholic’s Way, which was appropriate then and, walking round the ruins of the old stadium, even more appropriate now.
Today, though, it is Atlético’s stadium, a new arena with 64,000 seats that has just hosted the biggest game in club football, a place that Liverpool fans consider partly their own having beaten Spurs in the European Cup final there. It’s not where Atletico fans wanted it to be, right out by the airport, but it is impressive. And this summer Atlético Madrid’s manager Diego Simeone told La Nación: “we’re no longer the people’s team; we have an extraordinary stadium and next year we will have a training ground at the level the club deserves.”
On one level that is something to celebrate, of course, but there was also a sense of loss, a reluctance to let go of what they were, to be too much like the rest, and especially like their rivals: the response to that comment showed how far Atlético fans embraced that identity, built over years. Simeone stepped back a little, but only a little. “We have a wonderful stadium and we signed Joao Felix for €126 million, so economically we’re not the people’s team,” he said, “but socially, morally and emotionally we are, because we still draw on our roots and that doesn’t change, however much the club grows economically.”
On Saturday, the derby comes and while Atlético long ended the days when Real Madrid’s fans could hold up a mock advert asking for “a worthy rival for a decent derby,” this time more than any other time is when they most embrace that difference. One of the many things that Atlético expressed for years, and still do, was not being Real Madrid. Beating Madrid is another matter. For 25 games, Atlético couldn’t defeat them and then one day in the Copa del Rey final at the Bernabéu, it changed (except in Europe) and boy, do they have decent derbies these days.
This is first vs. third, after all: two teams who are genuine candidates to win the league. Atlético have finished above Real for two years in a row. And they have spent too this time. A lot.
Here are the sub-plots and currents running under the season’s first Madrid derby.
The “people’s team” finally splash the cash
This summer, Atlético spent more than they ever had before: €244m. That’s just €54m less than Real Madrid did. As Simeone suggested, a team that spends €126m on Joao Felix can’t really play the pauper card. They splashed almost €100m on defenders alone and they even bought from Real €€30m although as it turns out, he’s not played much so far. And yet, those figures need to be put into context.
Atlético’s spending was driven by the departure of players that left, some of whom they were powerless to stop: Rodri, Lucas Hernandez and Antoine Griezmann all departed after their new clubs unilaterally paid the buy-out clause, three players alone raising €270m, most of which was reinvested. Most of, but not all. Atlético actually made a €44m profit. Well, €44,000,300 now.
The Spanish Federation has just fined Barcelona for their approach to Griezmann. It cost them €300. As Marca handily pointed out, you could get fined more than twice that for urinating in the street.
The derby’s new British connection
No, not Gareth Bale (although him too). Kieran Trippier has become an unexpected hero at Atlético, pressed very high and very wide, with so much of their play passing through him. The full-backs are vital for the team to function, allowing the midfield to turn inside, leaving them with the wing to themselves.
Left-back Renan Lodi is an attacking threat with his speed and willingness to run beyond people; on the other side, Trippier is more about the passing and delivery, usually from a little further back. He’s more likely to sneak in behind players than run beyond them. He takes no risks, rarely loses the ball and plays the right pass almost every time: prepared to come back inside with a simple ball if the cross is not on.
No one in the Atlético team has put as many balls into the box as Trippier — he’s way, way ahead of the rest — and they look for him early and often, playing long diagonal passes to seek him out. If he goes, he relies heavily on Koke to cover and combine: there’s a neat partnership developing there. Koke’s work, responsibility and positioning is fundamental. Watch how often Trippier is further forward than the captain.
(All that said, Santiago Arias played well enough in Mallorca to pose the question of whether Trippier, resting on Wednesday to be fit for this, is quite the guaranteed starter he appeared to be.)
The new, improved Atlético?
Griezmann, Rodri and Lucas all left, but they weren’t the only ones. Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez and Juanfran all brought their Atlético careers to an end. Half of their starting XI went; Atlético had to start again. It’s true that Saúl, Koke and Jan Oblak are still there, while they managed to keep Alvaro Morata too, but this wasn’t just changing players; it was changing play.
First things first here: despite the enthusiasm, this probably is a slightly weaker team than it was. But it is strong, and certainly stronger than many feared as players started to depart, and it’s exciting too. It’s also different. As Koke put it in an interview with AS: “there’s been a huge change. We want to play a bit more, play a bit better, change a bit. Maybe you can see it in the way that we have a bit more possession.” That’s part of the question: how soon will it all fit into place, how committed will they be to this idea, which appears to break a little with who they were, how well will it work?
So far, they’re optimistic, but cautiously so. There’s definitely a shift: before Mallorca, they had conceded two goals a game for three straight games, which is not like them.
Speaking of Koke… how about Casemiro?
Casemiro. That is all. Madrid need him to impose himself on the game, possibly more than they need anyone else right now.
Who will be Atletico’s 11th man?
Ten of Saturday’s starting XI seems reasonably clear although the make-up and order of the middle shifts sometimes: Saul, Koke, Thomas Partey in midfield, maybe even Hector Herrera. The question is the 11th man. Angel Correa, Vitolo, Lemar? Or maybe even an extra central midfielder?
And where does Joao Felix line up? He starts for sure but he’s played right, left and middle, sometimes in the same game.
As for Madrid, their line-up seems pretty clear, with Nacho likely filling in for Ferland Mendy and Marcelo (who’s back in training) at left-back: Thibaut Courtois, Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Nacho, James Rodriguez, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Bale, Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard.
Luka Modric is back, too: it’s not impossible, though unlikely, that he immediately returns to the team.
Madrid look different while staying the same
On the day that Madrid played their first home game of the season, there was only one player who hadn’t been at the club back in 2014 — and that was the goalkeeper. So much for the French revolution. So much for “there will be changes.”
Zidane hadn’t got all the players he wanted — Paul Pogba, basically — and didn’t want all the players they could get him. It was tempting at that point to say, though, that the best thing that could happen to him was that he didn’t get what he wanted: James and Bale, two footballers that weren’t in his plans, suddenly appeared as his signings. Neither were happy, neither felt entirely wanted, but both look set to play key parts, and were determined to make a point. James is running like he’s never done before.
While there’s little cover in midfield, there have been some changes too: Hazard is fit now, while both Vinicius and Rodrygo scored in midweek. The latter took his goal superbly. He’d only been on the pitch 94 seconds of his debut. Vinicius is unlikely to start on Saturday — it will be Bale, Benzema and Hazard up front — but he may play a part. Rodrygo wasn’t named in the squad.
It’s too early to be completely convinced, and there’s no great tactical shift or dazzling displays, but slowly things seem to be falling into place. Including them: for the first time in two years and four months, Real stand alone at the top. And even if this had happened a week ago, after the disaster in Paris, that’s no reason for Atlético to be optimistic.
Koke knows this. “People give them up for dead and that’s a big lie,” he said.
The Jose Mourinho effect?
Zidane complained about a “lack of intensity” after Madrid were destroyed by PSG in the Champions League. It’s too often a catch-all explanation for everything, a cliche that doesn’t really explain anything while avoiding deeper questions and proper analysis, but there’s a kernel of truth in it.
The Real boss was under pressure and the talk was of Mourinho. And suddenly, there it was in Seville: the intensity Zidane demanded. Time to do the “tongue in cheek” emoji here, but was that threat all it took? Magic. Lads, Mourinho might come: time to pull our fingers out!
There is a broader question, though, raised by Jorge Valdano: Madrid fought in Seville, taking their defensive responsibilities very seriously, aware of the pressure they were under and the threat from an opponent who had beaten them four years running. Can they always do that? Should they, in fact?
“They can’t do what they did today consistently,” said Valdano. “Bale, Hazard and James have to go forward, not back.”
Courtois, Morata face their old friends
Outside the Metropolitano, there is a plaque for every player who has played at least 100 games for Atlético. That means that there is a plaque for Courtois. Last time he came, it was scratched, covered in rubbish, mud and the lid from a tin of biscuits with a picture of a stag on it: a sign of infidelity. There were also loads of cuddly toy rats; fans even threw some at him during the game.
He’s not the only one in the two squads but he may be the only one on the pitch in the end: Atlético didn’t get James Rodríguez, even though at that point in the summer they, and he, wanted to. Marcos Llorente, signed from Madrid for €30m, has not played a major role and probably won’t start. Morata is suspended after he came on in Mallorca and was sent off again eight minutes later, having picked up two yellow cards in barely 60 seconds following a confrontation with Xisco Campos and Salva Sevilla.
They’re still arguing now over what was said. Sevilla says he called Morata a “daddy’s boy.” Morata won’t say what he heard, but that it was far worse. Atlético have appealed, but don’t expect it to succeed.
Six months later, Diego Costa scored for Atlético in Mallorca. “Forwards need goals; they live by them,” Diego Simeone said. “This is very good for him, and very good for the team.”
He’s scored six times in four games against Madrid since returning to Atlético, which sounds amazing, but handle those figures with care: they were scored in the European Super Cup last summer and in this summer’s 7-3 win in preseason. In La Liga, it’s been 1-1 and 0-0 and he hasn’t scored.
Oh, and he has a friend waiting for him: “I want to play against Costa,” said Hazard, his former teammate at Chelsea.
Watch out for Benzema
Almost 10 years later, he has become a goalscorer. He always was, of course, just not quite like this. After a decade facilitating things for Cristiano Ronaldo, a brilliant player if not a no.9 as such, he has now taken responsibility for himself. He’s top scorer in Spain and one of the league’s outstanding players so far. He started to get a lot of goals consistently last season, particularly after Zidane’s return.
The truth was that few of them were truly important, the season was over and the doubts remained, but now they matter. His five include the winner in Seville. Mind you, he’s never been about goals and maybe still shouldn’t be: his best moment remains that bit of skill in the derby at the Calderón in the Champions League. On the spot where he produced that bit of magic, there’s just dust and broken concrete now. He’ll miss it, too.