The best attack in Spain takes on a team in transition


The last time rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid met, Atletico rode an early Luis Suarez goal to a 1-1 draw. Real Madrid generated more scoring chances overall — 19 shots to 11, 1.9 expected goals to 1.3 — and pulled even with an 88th-minute goal from Karim Benzema. But late saves from keeper Jan Oblak assured Atleti of a point, and that result ended up rather significant: Atleti ended up winning LaLiga by two points over their derby rivals.

The Madrid Derby resumes on Sunday — stream LIVE, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN+ — and the tables have turned significantly. Los Blancos have lost only once in their first 16 league matches and have opened up a commanding lead atop LaLiga, ahead of Sevilla by eight points, nine over Real Betis and 10 over Atleti and Real Sociedad.

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We’re not yet to the season’s midway point, but FiveThirtyEight is giving Real Madrid a 75% chance of winning the league, and no one else is above 10%. Atletico have the best odds of finishing second, but have quite a bit of work to do just to secure a top-four finish. And while Real Madrid quickly rebounded from a slow start in Champions League play this fall, Atleti couldn’t secure a spot in the knockout rounds until Tuesday’s win at Porto.

Here are some of the points of interest heading into Sunday’s game, the biggest of the weekend across Europe.

How Carlo Ancelotti built the best attack in Spain

This summer, new (and old) Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti inherited a roster in transition. They were still getting plenty from a veteran core of forward Karim Benzema, midfielders Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro, etc., but stalwart defenders Sergio Ramos (PSG) and Raphael Varane (Manchester United) had both left. The club brought in former Bayern defender David Alaba, 23-year old Eder Militao took on a much larger role, and the early transition was tricky: they drew 3-3 with Levante in August, allowed two goals to Celta Vigo in September and lost, rather famously, to Sheriff Tiraspol by a 2-1 margin in the Champions League. A week later they fell to Espanyol by the same 2-1 score.

Since October’s international break, however, the team has ignited. In their last 12 LaLiga and Champions League matches, they’ve dropped just two points and outscored opponents by a 27-6 margin. Regression from rivals has certainly helped them to build their lead — Atletico have gone from averaging 2.3 points per game to 1.9, Barcelona from 2.1 to 1.5, and Sevilla have suffered some bad close-game breaks while improving only from 2.0 to 2.1 — but none of that should detract from what has been a spectacular run of form.

The defense has solidified, and the attack is outstanding. They have improved from 1.8 goals per league match last season to 2.3, maintaining the same strong shot quality (fifth in LaLiga in xG per shot), but significantly increasing their shot quantity. They average 0.20 shots per possession, more than even the prolific Bayern Munich and fourth-most overall among Europe’s Big 5 leagues.

Benzema has maintained last season’s outstanding numbers up front, but winger Vinicius Junior has found a new gear, giving Benzema a dance partner opponents simply cannot account for.

It’s possible both players are finishing at too high a level to maintain — they’ve got 22 goals from 16.2 xG in LaLiga, plus seven from 5.6 in the Champions League — but it’s not a given, in particular because of the interplay they’ve developed. Of Benzema’s 30 chances created, seven have gone to Vini Jr. and among Vini’s 26, nine have gone to Benzema. Throw in bouts of awesomeness from Marco Asensio on the right wing (five goals, 13 chances created in 715 combined LaLiga and Champions League minutes), and you’ve got by far the best attack in Spain. (It might be tempered a little if Benzema misses out, with his fitness unclear for Sunday.)

Granted, this is still a pretty old roster overall, even with the presence of Vinicius (21), Militao, midfielder Federico Valverde (23) and the most recent high-upside addition, midfielder Eduardo Camavinga (19). Of their 13 players with at least 800 minutes in all competitions this season, nine are aged 29 or older. Perhaps injuries or fatigue will dampen the team’s form at some point in the future, but at the moment, said form is as strong as anyone’s in Europe.

Ancelotti has lowered the defensive intensity a bit — from 11.5 passes allowed per defensive action to 13.2, from 297 carries allowed per 90 to 318 — and he has slowed the tempo to a crawl. They’re averaging 81.6 possessions per 90 in league play, third-fewest in Europe’s Big Five and down from 86.2 last season.

This can backfire at times, as limiting possessions when you’re likely to have a per-possession advantage can simply result in you creating fewer total advantages. But it’s working for this group, and it’s keeping a few miles off of old legs, especially with the work Alaba and younger guys are doing in ball advancement. The thanks primarily go to Alaba, Militao and Vinicius Jr., who are averaging 488 carries per 90 by themselves, more than even carries-heavy Barcelona and most in the league.

Atletico Madrid can no longer count on its defense

Real Madrid are evolving under a new coach and familiar players, while Atletico are attempting to do the same with an old coach and some new players. After sticking with a rigid, structured 4-4-2 for longer than basically any of the richest clubs in Europe — and after seeing loads of success with it — Diego Simeone has spent the last couple of seasons attempting to modernize a bit.

Atletico Madrid starting formations (LaLiga and Champions League):

2019-20: 98% with four at the back (primarily 4-4-2)
2020-21: 57% with three at the back (3-1-4-2, 3-4-2-1, 3-5-2)
2021-22: 71% with three at the back (3-1-4-2, 3-4-2-1)

Atletico play with a three-at-the-back structure more than two-thirds of the time now, and as an attempted evolution from the 4-4-2, it makes sense. It allows them to create more width in attack while still keeping the midfield cluttered — Simeone always wants to steer opponents wide when possible — and thanks to the third center-back, keeping back-up in place if opponents create a decent counter-attacking opportunity.

Simeone will still break out the tried-and-true 4-4-2 against lesser opponents, but he’s taken to using a 3-1-4-2 or 3-4-2-1 against most of the good ones and unlike last season, three-at-the-back has been his go-to in the Champions League as well.

This transition didn’t prevent Atleti from winning LaLiga for the first time in seven years last season, and it could certainly be going worse now. Again, Simeone’s squad advanced to the Champions League knockout rounds for the seventh time in eight years and are the most likely team to finish second in LaLiga this season.

The efforts to spruce up a sometimes stolid attack have worked nicely, too. They have improved in shot quantity and quality, and that improvement has continued in 2021-22 despite Luis Suarez’s decline in form and Joao Felix’s injuries. (Suarez is also likely to miss out on Sunday through injury.) The additions of forwards Antoine Griezmann (well, re-addition) and Matheus Cunha, plus midfielder Rodrigo De Paul, have had their intended effects. Atletico generate more touches in the attacking third than their opponent (that wasn’t the case as late as 2019-20), and their carry and possession numbers have increased as intended.

Still, they’re more vulnerable to counter-attacks than they used to be — create a modern system, deal with modern problems — and they’re getting sucked into a few more track meets than they’re used to: witness their 2-2 draws with Villarreal, Real Sociedad and Levante and a 3-3 draw with Valencia in LaLiga, plus losses of 3-2 and 2-0 to Liverpool in the Champions League.

Generally, a three-at-the-back structure puts great pressure on your wing-backs to play two different roles at once. If they can both increase width and danger in attack while tracking back in transition to avoid getting caught in counters, then the numerical advantages such a formation can generate in the center of the pitch can reap huge dividends.

When Atletico won LaLiga last season, Yannick Carrasco and Kieran Trippier were dynamite in these roles. But this season, Trippier struggled out of the gate and then injured his shoulder. He’s been out since early-November, and isn’t expected back until 2022. Carrasco is still awesome on the left, but of late they have been getting width on the right from Marcos Llorente, who is decidedly more “wing” than “back.”

Combined with injury issues and shuffling at center-back, Atletico have also suffered in transition. They’ve gone from allowing 0.7 goals per match in league play to 1.1, and opponents have found themselves under far less pressure near the goal. Last season, 88.6% of opponent shots came with at least two defenders between shot and goal, the most in LaLiga; this season that number has fallen to 83.2% (12th-best). Opponents are placing strong, accurate shots at keeper Jan Oblak, and he isn’t saving hardly any of them. Oblak has been one of the best keepers in the world in recent years — if not the best — but at the moment, Atleti’s save percentage is drastically lower than everyone else’s.

LaLiga save percentage, 2021-22:

17. Barcelona (63.2%)
18. Levante (63.2%)
19. Cadiz (60.9%)
20. Atletico (51.4%)

The good news, so to speak, is that 51% is unsustainably bad even if you are indeed giving your opponents pretty good looks at the goal. Last season no one in Europe’s Big 5 had a full-season save percentage lower than 57%, and Atletico’s was 79%, best in the Big 5. Oblak and these percentages will almost certainly progress toward the mean.

The bad news is, Atletico are already 10 points back of the league lead. The damage has already been done. They saved their Champions League run with Tuesday’s win over Porto, but LaLiga is just about lost.

Strangely, Atletico have suffered the most mishaps while ahead.

Goal differential when tied (per 90 possessions): Real Madrid +0.87, Atletico +0.86
Goal differential when ahead (per 90 possessions): Real Madrid +1.63, Atletico -0.21

The best defend-and-counter team for years among Europe’s elite clubs, Atletico have led in 11 league matches, but suffered two draws and one loss from these 11. They’ve dropped more points in those 11 matches (seven) than they did in 29 such matches last season (six).

Playing with a lead might not be an issue on Sunday

Real Madrid has proven far more capable of playing well early.

Goal differential in the first 30 minutes (LaLiga only): Real Madrid +5 (first), Atletico +2 (fifth)
Goal differential in the middle 30 minutes: Real Madrid +8 (first), Atletico +0 (12th)
Goal differential in the last 30 minutes: Real Madrid +9 (first), Atletico +8 (second)

Atletico is still capable of a late, passionate charge, but they might need one to secure any points in this derby go-round. Caesars Sportsbook projects a 0.5-goal advantage for Real Madrid and gives them a 47% chance of winning outright (Atletico: 29%). FiveThirtyEight gives Los Blancos a 51% chance to Atletico’s 26%. Atleti are good and will potentially get even better when the save percentages normalize, but Real Madrid might be the best team in Europe at this moment.



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