A competitive Atletico Madrid is a good thing for Spanish football and reflects a levelling of the standards in La Liga.
The first title of 2016 went to Atlético Madrid. There’s no trophy handed out — there never is — and there’s a bit of an asterix next to their name, but Atlético are Spain’s “Winter Champions”. And, yes, that really does mean something here. Diego Simeone’s side reached the half-way stage, nineteen games in to the campaign when every team has played every other team once thanks to the mirror-image way the season is structured, top of the table.
It is the first time they have been Winter Champions since 1996 — and that year they won the double. Now people are starting to ask the question they asked two years ago: could Atlético really win the league? Most people think the answer is no, but then most people think the answer was no back then, too.
Atlético are on forty-four points, four ahead of Real Madrid and two ahead of Barcelona, who have a game in hand after their clash with Sporting Gijón was postponed because of the Club World Cup. And that’s where the asterix comes in: this time, not everyone has played everyone else once, not yet anyway, and if Barcelona do win their game in hand they will climb back above Atlético.
That didn’t stop everyone declaring Atlético the Winter Champions, though. And even if there has not been a Winter Champion with so few points in almost a decade, it is still quite an achievement. In fact, that statistic may prove to be good for Atlético and for the league itself, a sign of improved competitiveness. Two years ago, one player privately insisted that they could not win a “100 point league”; in the end, they did not have to. This season, it should not take a three-digit haul either.
Atlético secured the ‘title’ with an impressive 2-0 win in Vigo that was a demonstration of why they are league leaders, and another sign that they are still getting better. It had the kind of swift, precise, one-touch, technical goal that they have been looking for all season and only recently appeared capable of scoring with regularity. It also had all the classic Atlético qualities: a clean sheet, a goal from Griezmann, and a decisive contribution from the bench.
Griezmann opened the scoring just after half time following a wonderful, rapid exchange with Luciano Vietto — receiving with his back to goal and flicking the ball first time into the Argentinian’s path, spinning and sprinting into the six yard box to meet the return pass.
It was his tenth league goal of the season and meant that he had scored eight of Atlético’s last fourteen goals. The list of recent goalscorers underlins the consistency of his contribution: Griezmann, Koke, Griezmann, Godín, Griezmann, Saúl, Griezmann, Correa, Griezmann, Thomas, Griezmann, then thirty minutes later Carrasco.
If the limited contribution from other players was a concern, the fact that there has been a contribution from so many of them is a comfort. And while Fernando Torres has been stuck on ninety-nine Atlético goals for nineteen games and Jackson Martínez has not yet overly impressed, there are signs of Simeone finding his favoured forward line, bit by bit. The summer arrivals are starting to make their mark. Some of them are, anyway. Vietto’s role in Vigo was vital — and that despite the fact that he had not started the season well, struggling with the demands made of him.
“We can improve the [number of] chances and not have five or six chances for each goal,” Carrasco said afterwards. Slowly, that is starting to happen. Besides, Yannik Carrasco made it 2-0 coming from the bench and that is becoming a familiar routine: when Atlético really need to find a way through, they have often found it among the substitutes.
No manager in Spain has used his bench as effectively as Simeone. Eight goals and nine assist have been provided by men who didn’t start the game so far this season — stats that no one else comes near to replicating. “Every player has to understand that we don’t share that individual idea that being a starter is what matters,” Simeone said. “We think that he quality of the minutes is more important than the quantity.”
“The lads who have arrived in the summer have given us variety and solutions, especially coming off the bench. We’re not the best or the worst side around, but we have a team that is ready to compete at any moment.”
They may not have scored many goals — 27, compared to 44 for Barcelona and 52 for Real Madrid — but nor do they need to. Ten times they have scored a solitary goal and they have lost just one of those games, against Barcelona. No one in Europe, let alone Spain, can match Atlético’s defensive solidity. They have kept twelve clean sheets in nineteen games and conceded just eight all season.
Celta was another example: not only did they not let one in, they allowed the home side a single shot on target all game. No goalkeeper in the league has made as few saves as Jan Oblak. Which does not make him a poor goalkeeper, far from it: when he has had to he has done so and the sense of security he transmits is complete.
“They don’t let you play at all,” Celta striker Iago Aspas said.
So, Carrasco was asked, can Atlético win the league again? “Game by game” was Simeone’s mantra, when he was not outright rejecting the idea that they could win the title, but for once a player didn’t follow his every word. “If we’re top …” Carrasco said, pausing to add: “If we can keep on like this, we can do something important this year.”