Atlético Madrid have a fanbase renowned the world over, but with supporters shut out of stadiums, Diego Simeone’s side have still found a way to prosper. Seán McGill examines how Atléti have mounted their title charge without their key component.
Empty arenas have taken their toll on the entire footballing landscape. Financially, of course, the harshest impact is being felt by the clubs with the fewest resources. But in terms of the spectacle, of that intangible buzz that makes the beautiful game so beautiful, the lack of crowds is being felt most by some of Europe’s elite.
The Yellow Wall has been dismantled, and so with it, the electricity that has characterised Borussia Dortmund over the past decade. A manager sacked, a defence in ruins, and a sight of Champions League qualification increasingly obstructed, it has been a tough season despite Die Borussen’s abundance of youthful talent.
Fortress Anfield has not only been infiltrated, but unceremoniously conquered. The red tidal wave that had swept over both English and European football in recent years has calmed. Just as no fans were there to see Liverpool lift their maiden Premier League, none have been there to prevent their meagre surrender of it.
But in Spain, even without the Rojiblancos roar, Atlético Madrid are thriving. The fans aren’t there to stoke the flames of the fearsome aura, yet the team spirit burns on regardless. And when the smoke of the current La Liga season clears, expect the trophy to be adorned with tassels of glorious red and white.
Before the pandemic struck, talk of the demise of Atlético’s atmosphere had been proved premature. After vacating their home in 2017, the last remnants of Estadio Vicente Calderón were removed over the summer. Some thought the loss of one of Spain’s most intimidating and iconic stadiums would erode Atléti’s energy, but in the Wanda Metropolitano, despite the gloss and the sheen, it still feels very…Atlético.
Those 70,000 new seats now lie unoccupied on matchdays. With the great leveller of the ferocious crowd rendered mute, surely a season of typical El Clásico dominance would follow. Post-lockdown, Diego Simeone needed a ten-game unbeaten run for his side to pip Sevilla to third in the league. 12 points off a crumbling Barcelona and 17 off underwhelming champions Real at the season’s conclusion, many colchoneros would have taken a year of consolidation.
In reality, it looks as though 2020/21 will bring a year of celebration – whatever celebration looks like nowadays. Atléti have won 17 of 22 league games played, losing just once in the Madrid Derby. Los Blancos are their nearest challengers six points off the pace, but Zinedine Zidane’s men have played a game more than their city rivals.
Some may attribute this swift change of fortunes to the current shambles that is Spain’s big two, but that would be doing the league leaders a massive disservice. A traditional club with traditional values, Simeone’s 4-4-2 formation has become just as synonymous with Atlético as El Cholo himself. In breaking the status quo and switching to a 3-5-2, this side has evolved into an even more terrifying version of their former selves. If the fans can’t be there to strike fear into opposition hearts, then the team on the pitch will work twice as hard to do just that.
A change of formation has not meant a change of principle, with defensive stability still a top priority. No team in Europe’s top five leagues have conceded fewer goals than Atlético this season, secure in the unsurprising consistency of Jan Oblak and the quartet of centre-backs who have all been part of the defensive trio ahead of him; Felipe, José Giménez, Mario Hermoso and Stefan Savic.
However, without the chaos in the stands this season, Atleti have allowed for a little more chaos on the pitch. They have failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their last six games, coming from behind on four of those occasions. It’s the first time in over ten years they’ve had such a run without nullifying an opposition attack, and the first time ever under Simeone’s stewardship. Despite disappointing defensive form, the unquestionable talent they have in that department should see them return to their imperious nature sooner rather than later.
It turns out “later” was the answer to the question “When will Thomas Lemar come good for Atlético?” – but “later” is better than “never”. The rugged outfit have always enjoyed a few flair players to create something magical. The €70 million price tag on Lemar’s head was starting to look as though it was Atlético who had been tricked.
However, with Yannick Ferreira Carrasco laying claim to the left-wing berth, the Frenchman has carved out an exciting role in the centre of midfield. While still not a guaranteed starter, no pressure from the fervent fans has allowed Lemar to showcase his dazzling driving runs forward and his surprising industry in preventing counter-attacks.
Speaking of flair at an eye-watering price, João Félix is beginning to look more settled 18 months on from swapping the Portuguese capital for the Spanish. Having already matched his goal tally from last season, and added a few more assists, the world’s third most expensive player is growing in confidence at a club where such an attribute is vital. The form of Ángel Correa has meant the pair have had to share their time on the pitch, taking turns in being the foil for Atletico’s newest talisman, Luis Suárez
Even though there are no fans singing in the stands, there’s a ringing noise in the ears of everyone at Camp Nou. Not only did the decision to cast aside the 34-year-old infuriate Lionel Messi, it also seems to have set Atléti on course for an 11th league title.
The Uruguayan leads the race for the Pichichi trophy with 16 goals, hitting the back of net every 91 minutes on average in La Liga. Despite only rocking up at the Metropolitano this season, it feels as though this club has always been the perfect fit for Suaréz. Gritty, astute, passionate, and a master of football’s dark arts, he acts as a physical embodiment of Atlético’s entire ethos.
But to give sole credit to their new man would be unfair. Second in the goalscoring charts, quite remarkably, is Marcos Llorente. It may seem a lifetime ago, but the former Real Madrid midfielder truly announced himself in one of the last high-profile games that enjoyed the vibrations of a capacity crowd. He had scored just three senior goals before that Champions League thriller at Anfield, where his brace knocked out the European Champions in dramatic fashion. Since then, his versatility (as a central midfielder, a second striker & a wing-back) has made him a mainstay in the side, adding a further 11 goals to his now impressive tally.
Like many players at Atlético he plays an array of roles, but his boundless energy, deceiving pace and understated intelligence makes him the key cog in the red and white machine. Alongside the familiar Koke and Saúl Ñíguez , you have a midfield trifecta that would inspire any fanbase in the world.
The fanbase they’ll care most about though is of course their own. Without them, this Atlético side could have put on displays as empty as the stands around them. Instead, they’ve taken on the spirit of the tens of thousands of colchoneros watching from home.
Ringmaster-in-chief Simeone may have lost his baying audience, but the show goes on – a show that could be his most critically acclaimed to date. And if award season brings round the title they desire, the noise of Atlético will quickly return to the silent streets of Madrid.