Atlético Madrid, under the management of Diego Simeone, has been experiencing a significant transformation in the 2023-24 season. Traditionally, third place has been their customary spot in La Liga, but this time, there’s a noteworthy change. The top of the table doesn’t feature Real Madrid and Barcelona as the top two teams, but the remarkable shift is in their goal-scoring performances.
Today, Atlético is a vastly different team. The Cívitas Metropolitano stadium is no longer associated with narrow 1-0 victories and staunch defensive displays. In fact, Simeone’s squad is now prolific in scoring goals, outpacing every other team in La Liga. They share the top spot for the highest number of goals scored this season (25 goals) with Girona. In the year 2023, only two teams in Europe’s top five leagues have managed to score more goals (72) than Atlético Madrid. This remarkable tally puts them on par with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, known for their free-scoring and treble-winning performances.
In 2023, the top-scoring teams in Europe’s top five leagues are as follows:
|Atlético de Madrid
In 2023, Atlético de Madrid’s impressive goal-scoring ability stands out, particularly in La Liga. No other team in the league has been able to score more than 63 goals in the same year, and their closest rivals are Real Madrid.
Since the World Cup break last year, Atlético has been on an outstanding streak. They’ve only experienced four defeats in their 33 league matches in 2023 and have accumulated more points than any other team in La Liga during this time. If the league season were based on the calendar year, Atlético Madrid would currently be leading the table with a game in hand and just five matches left in the 38-game campaign.
What has changed about Atletico Madrid?
The most significant change in Atlético Madrid’s performance has been their shift in formation. The classic 4-4-2 formation is a thing of the past, as Diego Simeone has adopted a 5-3-2 formation. While this tactical change might seem like a defensive adjustment given Simeone’s reputation, it has, in fact, created a more favorable environment for their attacking players to shine.
Notably, Antoine Griezmann (7 goals) and Álvaro Morata (6 goals) are currently ranked second and third in the individual goal-scorers list, with Jude Bellingham leading with 10 goals. Additionally, Saúl Ñíguez shares the top spot for assists (5) despite starting in only six out of a possible 10 games.
This suggests that, especially in the attacking aspect, the players have more freedom to break from their positions and venture into advanced areas with the added security of an extra center-back behind them. This has contributed to a team that exudes confidence at the moment. It’s worth noting that their 25 goals have been scored from just 18 expected goals (xG), indicating that their players are finishing their chances exceptionally well at this point in the season.
Atlético Madrid’s wing-backs have been playing a crucial role in their new attacking style. On the right, Nahuel Molina, who returned from Qatar as a World Cup winner, has been a revelation. On the left, Samuel Lino, who came back from his season-long loan at Valencia, has emerged as a formidable attacking left wing-back. Lino’s direct running and dribbling abilities have been instrumental in advancing the team up the pitch quickly. Moreover, his excellent technical skills have become increasingly important, not just in attack but also in defense.
While grit and tactical awareness were traditionally the key attributes of an Atlético Madrid defender under Simeone, there’s now a shift towards a bit more flair. This transition is evident in some of the players Simeone has selected this season.
Diego Simeone’s Transformation
Atlético Madrid is more adept than ever at controlling and dictating games under Simeone’s guidance. A significant factor behind this improvement is the type of players he now deploys in defense. In the past, Atléti could handle opponents who wanted possession but struggled when facing teams with even less ambition to control the game. They often lacked the creativity to break down deep-lying defenses, allowing opposing teams to find ways to counter their playing style.
There’s been a notable shift in Diego Simeone’s approach, with an acknowledgment that his team needs to control games more often, and this begins with their defense. While he still values the presence of hard-nosed defenders who can be wind-up merchants and tough players, he doesn’t always deploy them. Players like Stefan Savic and José Giménez, known for their yellow card accumulation in the past, are still part of the squad. Additionally, he added Caglar Söyüncü in the summer, who, although tough, is less prone to disciplinary issues.
However, Simeone has been willing to make changes in his back three, often favoring defenders with better ball-playing abilities. Mario Hermoso’s success as a left-sided center-back over the past year has likely played a significant role in this tactical evolution. Previously, Hermoso may have seemed somewhat out of place in Madrid, but he has become a crucial component of this new Atlético team, especially in how he enhances the team’s play with his passing skills.
Mario Hermoso’s impact on Atlético Madrid’s playing style is evident in his statistics. Despite playing for a team that has played one game fewer than most other teams, he ranks among La Liga’s top 20 players for successful passes. Surprisingly, Atlético, known for their defensive approach, only maintains an average possession of 52.2%, their highest in more than a decade under Simeone.
Hermoso is daring when in possession, and Simeone encourages him to take risks. In La Liga’s 2023-24 season, only Girona’s Aleix García has attempted (26) or successfully completed (21) more switches of play. Hermoso has attempted 18 and successfully completed an impressive 16, with his long passes out to Nahuel Molina on the right proving to be an effective tactic employed by Atlético. This demonstrates a strategic shift in their approach to build-up play.
Atlético Madrid’s efforts to build from the back have been evident with the signing of César Azpilicueta in the summer, signaling a shift in their tactical approach. Additionally, Diego Simeone has experimented with using Axel Witsel, typically a midfielder, at the heart of the defense.
While Simeone retained a familiar defensive lineup in the derby win over Real Madrid, there have been significant moments in important games when Azpilicueta and Witsel have been favored in the defense.
However, despite these adjustments, this is still unmistakably Simeone’s team. When they take the lead, they are content to sit back and protect it, and they remain lethal on the counter-attack. In fact, Atlético Madrid has scored more goals on the counter-attack this season (four) than any other team in La Liga.
Their inclination towards counter-attacking football leads to reduced possession compared to numerous competitors, with eight teams averaging higher possession rates. Furthermore, their shots per game average stands at 11.7, the lowest it has been in the last five seasons. It’s a testament to their ability to play to their strengths and make the most of their opportunities.
Atlético Madrid’s transformation under Diego Simeone is not only about scoring more goals but also about creating higher-quality chances. They are generating 3.4 big chances per game, the highest since Simeone took over in 2011, and their expected goals (xG) per game stands at 1.8, the highest since 2015-16. As a result, they are averaging 2.50 goals per game in the 2023-24 season, a rate they’ve only exceeded once under Simeone, back in the title-winning campaign of 2013-14.
While their defense isn’t as impervious as in the past, this is somewhat expected as they commit more players forward in their attacks. Nevertheless, they still boast the second-best defensive record in La Liga this season, conceding nine goals, exactly in line with their expected goals against (xG) of 9.0. This demonstrates that they remain solid at the back.
Simeone’s changes have made Atlético Madrid a more versatile team, addressing a criticism that they had become somewhat one-dimensional in recent years.
Notably, Atlético’s discipline on the field has improved, with only two teams having a better disciplinary record in La Liga this season. They have committed fewer fouls (108) than any other team in the league, resulting in a palpable reduction in frustration within the club. The Metropolitano is once again a happy place for all involved.
Atlético Madrid currently find themselves in their customary third place in La Liga, at least in financial terms. However, they are just three points behind the league leaders, their arch-rivals Real Madrid. What’s even more promising for Atlético is their superior head-to-head record, a better goal difference, and crucially, a game in hand.
Considering their current form with a remarkable run of six successive wins, the longest such streak in Europe’s top five leagues at the moment, there’s every reason to believe that Atlético will be in a higher position than third by the time they play their game in hand against struggling Sevilla in late December.
For a long time, La Liga has been dominated by a duopoly, and Atlético Madrid, under Simeone, has effectively challenged this status over the past 12 years. However, they haven’t won two league titles in four years since the 1969-70 and 1971-73 seasons. Their most recent La Liga victory was in 2019-20, so winning it this year would be a significant achievement.
If they continue on their current trajectory, this new Atlético Madrid team may well be considered the best one that Diego Simeone has built during his tenure.