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Can Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid repeat their La Liga title heroics?

Atletico Madrid's players congratulate teammate French forward Antoine Griezmann

While Real Madrid make changes, Atletico have gone back to basics and back to the top of La Liga. Can they pull off another upset? Adam Bate examines their abortive changes and the enduring traits that are helping them to defy the odds…

The cameras flashed and the sponsors staged the photographs that would adorn the newspapers. The drama was typical. But curiously, you sensed Atletico Madrid fans might approve of their rivals appointing Zinedine Zidane. Putting a Galactico in charge only reaffirms the roles of the two clubs.

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Rafael Benitez leading the world's most glamourous football team always felt incongruous. Now, over in the La Arganzuela district, amid the crumbling apartments that lead to the Vicente Calderon, they can truly embrace underdog life once more. Real have Zidane. Atletico have Diego Simeone.

Zinedine Zidane of Juventus holds the ball from Diego Simeone of Lazio during the Italian Serie A match in April 2000
Image: Diego Simeone in action for Lazio against Zinedine Zidane in 2000

The only complication, just as in 2000 when El Cholo helped Lazio to their first Serie A title in 26 years ahead of Zidane's Juventus, is that Atletico are above Real in the table. What's more, the miracle of 2013/14 when Los Rojiblancos won La Liga is in real danger of repeating itself.

Atletico Madrid kit 2015/16
Image: Comfortable in the spotlight? Atletico are embracing their underdog status

There's Barcelona, of course; the all-conquering treble winners with the trio who have scored 180 goals between them; the team who took one of Atletico's star players, Arda Turan, only to keep him in storage until January. But they're not La Liga's leaders at the halfway stage.

They have a third of the budget of Real and Barcelona, but they can go all the way.
Guillem Balague

Nineteen months on from the draw in Barcelona that helped secure the title win they'd been told was impossible, Atletico are back on top. We're even getting accustomed to it. "They have a third of the budget of Real and Barcelona, but they can go all the way," Guillem Balague told Sky Sports.

Atletico go two points clear
Atletico go two points clear

Thomas Partey came off the bench to fire Atletico Madrid to a 1-0 win over struggling Levante.

Even more remarkably, it's been an unusual Atletico so far this season. Even after the 1-0 win over Levante last weekend, Simeone said: "We can play better." After a summer of major ins and outs, this is a squad that is still learning the Atleti way. But what is the Atleti way now?

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The identity of Simeone's side has been under the microscope all year. Back in pre-season, Simeone declared his plans "to try a different system to usual" with 4-3-3 being used in favour of the long-preferred 4-4-2 formation. Koke was switched to a central role and there was variety in attack.

Atletico Madrid's French forward Antoine Griezmann (C) is congratulated by Atletico Madrid's Uruguayan defender Diego Godin
Image: Diego Godin, Antoine Griezmann and Koke have helped Atleti to top spot

In Marca, reporters wrote of the team now being "built to play for three points" but Simeone seemed agitated by the change - recognising the need for progression but anxious not "to lose the essence of the team" that had enabled them to over-achieve so consistently.

His words from last February acted as a warning to himself. "We're a tough team, strong, intense, powerful at counter-attacking," he'd said. "I don't want this to ever change. We can't change as we don't know how to play any other way. Should we change our style it would be a total disaster."

Atletico Madrid - Possession shift

Season Possession
2012/13 48.2%
2013/14 49.1%
2014/15 49.4%
2015/16 50.3%

And yet, there have been subtle changes. For the fourth season in a row, Atletico have increased the percentage of their possession. Initially, they appeared less solid, with Marca noting that "forced from the usual pattern, the squad is not as comfortable helping the side defensively".

But in early November, having won only three of the previous eight games - their joint-worst run since Simeone's arrival in 2011 - the manager decided enough was enough. He restated the club's philosophy for everyone to hear.

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The highlights of the Madrid derby that ended 1-1 in October 2015

"I invite those who still don't know what Atletico Madrid is to look again at work, pressure, playing on the counter-attack, being defensively strong," said Simeone. "Those who want to change that are going against what Atletico have always been.

"Historically, this is what Atletico is. Don't confuse the fans. This is Atletico. Effort, contagiousness, counter-attacks, competitiveness. That's the way success has always come and we'll continue that way, no matter what they say."

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Graham Hunter and Guillem Balague discuss the big three at the midway point

The next day, Sporting Gijon were beaten. The scoreline? One goal to nil, of course. In fact, Atletico promptly embarked on a nine-game winning run. In the dozen games since that afternoon press conference, Simeone's men have conceded only four goals.

"They have done it in an interesting way," says Balague. "They tried to change to a more possession-based game, then realised they have to go back to their essence, and now they have the best defence in Europe and still a lot of qualities up front."

Fewest goals conceded in major European leagues

Team League Goals conceded
Atletico Madrid La Liga 8
Bayern Munich Bundesliga 8
Paris St Germain Ligue 1 9
Internazionale Serie A 11

Only Bayern Munich can match Atletico's defensive record among teams in major European leagues. While Real Madrid have scored 22 more goals, they have also conceded more than twice as many. While Barca rank bottom for tackles made, Atletico are second with almost 200 more.

La Liga - Big three comparison

Team Tackles Rank
Atletico Madrid 597 2nd
Real Madrid 465 14th
Barcelona 406 20th

The personnel has changed. Against Levante, the breakthrough goal came courtesy of the Ghanaian Thomas Partey after playing a one-two with fellow youngster Saul Niguez. Three days before that, it was a late goal (there have been lots) from 20-year-old Angel Correa that saw off Rayo Vallecano.

Atletico Madrid players celebrate after Saul Niguez scored a goal during the La Liga match v Athletic Bilbao at the Vicente Calderon
Image: Young players such as Saul Niguez have played their part this season

None of the three men featured in the team's title win, but they are being assimilated now. However, the recent additions are the ones adapting to Atletico, not the other way around. The squad is improving but the style remains. The question now is how far it could take them in 2016.

While Zidane works to get the egos at Valdebebas back on side, Simeone's mantra is simple. Asked what he hoped for from his team this year, he replied: "A lot of energy and effort to continue competing and working with our usual enthusiasm." And why not? It's the Atletico way, after all.

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