The remarkable thing is that Atletico Madrid’s triumph in the Champions League quarter final against Barcelona, a result that takes them into the final four for the first time since 1974, is probably not their greatest achievement this season. That honour is reserved for their amazing run in La Liga, where they currently sit three points clear at the top with just five matches remaining.
“With five rounds to go, there are five finals to go, and we’ll play them as such,” says manager Diego Simeone. A campaign that he initially suggested would be taken “one game at a time” has entered its final stretches with Atletico having belied all the odds. Perhaps it is time to recalculate those expectations.
After all, Atletico’s rise under Simeone has been nothing but exponential. In his first season they were Europa League champions, the second year winners of both the Super Cup – against Chelsea, who they now battle for a place in the Champions League final – and Copa Del Rey. Now both a domestic and continental title are within grasp.
“This is the best moment of our lives,” says Gabi. He, more than anyone as a graduate of the club’s youth academy and now captain of the side, can appreciate the magnitude of what this side have achieved, and what they may possibly achieve in the coming weeks.
This is a rise precipitated on intangibles like “sacrifice, humility and enthusiasm”, as Simeone has described it, as well sheer hard work and tremendous discipline. Simeone’s tactics are not particularly revolutionary, but what is remarkable is how much the squad simply seems to believe in his approach.
Their commitment is incredible. They run, harry and press with an intensity unmatched by any other side in the world: they are, as Carlo Ancelotti put it so well in a much repeated anecdote, the literal reflection of Simeone: “tough, focused and tactically perfect”, just as the Argentine was in a career that spanned 106 caps for his country and a league and cup double for his current club.
The key has not been in his innovation but in the effectiveness of his implementation of fairly basic tenets of counter-attacking football. Atletico’s 4-4-2 is not ground-breaking. Strikers Diego Costa and David Villa drop behind the ball to make the side compact, with wide midfielders Koke and Arda Turan taking up very narrow positions to prevent sides from playing through Atletico; forcing them wide instead. Only Hoffenheim and Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga make more tackles per game in Europe’s top five leagues – only two, again, ranking better for shots conceded. Atletico simply do not let you get near their goal: and even if you do, Thibaut Courtois, not only the world’s best young keeper but also one with a serious claim of being the best in the world, is protecting the posts.
It begs the question: if Atletico defend so deep and with such numbers, how do they score goals? The answer, as Simeone would tell you, is simple. They are committed to the cause defensively, likewise in attack. The two wide players and strikers will carry the ball upfield with a mix of pace, power and determination, epitomised by the relentless runner of top goalscorer Diego Costa.
If Atletico run so much, though, then how are they not tired? It is a pertinent question, one addressed personally by Gabi after the side appeared particularly spent in a laborious 1-0 win over Villareal.
“None of the players are tired,” said the captain. “We’ve brought hope to the fans, and that’s the most important thing.” Atletico are, he is suggesting, riding a wave – one started by Simeone that has carried the momentum of winning into the stands, from where the side’s incredible energy is reciprocated by their support. At times last week in the Champions League it felt the stadium was a cauldron, with Barcelona ingredients being boiled and smoked by noise alone. Every counter-attack was greeted with a roar, the final whistle met with a thunderous bellow that rained down from the highest tier and shook as the players acknowledged them with a lap of honour.
With six of the ten most used players in La Liga this year, Atletico need that extra boost. It sounds ridiculous but the power of a crowd united in support can impugn players with energy, and with five games in the league to go – plus two, possibly three left in Europe – Atletico will need every last resource as this remarkable season marches on.