Some 18 years ago around about this same time of the season, Atletico Madrid were leading the way in La Liga. After 14 rounds they had accumulated 34 points, losing just once. They would, with Diego Simeone playing a key role in midfield, go on to win La Liga. Not since then have they reached such heights, their third place finish last season being their best finish since. But, this season Atletico continue to give substance to those who argue that, maybe, this could be the season where they break, as they did all those years ago, La Liga’s duopoly.
It probably was not even their best performance of the campaign and certainly playing against 10 men for just over half the match did help. Nevertheless, Atletico’s seven-goal mauling of city rivals Getafe has once again raised the debate – are they now on par with Barcelona and Real Madrid?
For all intents and purposes, a glance at the table will suggest this is so. Simeone’s side are second and have been for much of the season. They are just three points behind leaders Barca and three points ahead of Real Madrid. It is a remarkable achievement given the disparity off the field in terms of finances.
In a year where Real Madrid topped the €500m mark in revenue, and where Barcelona are not too far off from doing the same, Atletico Madrid’s revenue comes in at around a fifth of their two rivals. Financially they simply cannot compete. It is for this reason that Simeone, despite his sides’ achievements, believes, ‘La Liga is still boring’, due to the lack of opportunity for most teams to compete, including his own Atletico.
But, Simeone’s side are bucking the trend. They ‘have turned Spanish football upside down’, as Getafe Coach Luis Garcia claimed after his side’s demolition. And the former Real Madrid player is spot on, Atletico have done this and not just by virtue of their results.
As their win on Saturday once again showed, Atletico got a great result playing their own unique brand of football. They were, as ever, intense, dynamic and fast. Their style of play is a long way from that of Barcelona’s tiki-taka – a style that now dominates the mindset in Spain. And by being successful, Atletico have demonstrated that there are other ways to play football and win at the same time. As Luis Garcia continued: “For years only tiki-taka was good enough and now this team, with their aggression, intensity and ability to play together, without having a lot of possession in many games, has shown how to achieve things by playing differently.”
It is perhaps a little ironic that Barcelona, the pioneers and purveyors of tiki-taka, under Tata Martino are showing that they too know there are other ways to win. In the Press room after his side’s comfortable four-nil win over Granada, Martino once again had his side’s slightly more direct approach come in for criticism. Perhaps like his compatriot Simeone would agree, Martino responded saying: “perhaps how I look at beautiful football is different to you. I believe that you can have 20 pretty touches or you can have three.” It is telling of the obsession for aesthetics at the Camp Nou that Martino was even questioned given his side’s win that has kept them clear at the top of La Liga. But, that is Barca for you.
For all the quality football on display in Barcelona and at the Vicente Calderon, by far the most entertaining game over the weekend happened over at Anoeta. Trailing 3-1 after 58 minutes to Celta Vigo, Real Sociedad came back to win 4-3, Carlos Vela scoring all four goals. It was a timely reminder that La Liga is not always boring.