Still unbeaten, only two goals conceded, five wins in a row and three points off top spot with two games in hand…after last weekend’s 1-0 victory over Barcelona, it’s certainly fair to say that Atletico Madrid are serious contenders to win La Liga.
More interesting than the results achieved so far by Diego Simeone’s men, however, is the manner in which they have done so. Because finally, after resisting years of pressure, it appears that Simeone has finally yielded to the temptation to release the handbrake and allow his team to become a more expressive and dynamic attacking force.
This new approach was evident from Saturday’s game against Barcelona, which saw Atletico immediately take the game to their visitors and twice come close to an early opener as Saul forced a great save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Marcos Llorente crashed a fierce shot against the crossbar.
Later on, even with his team defending a slender advantage, Simeone still allowed his players to maintain an attacking mindset as they went in search of a second goal that would have killed off the game – illustrated by the fact that Diego Costa had 28 touches of the ball in 20 minutes off the bench, nearly as many as Barca forward Antoine Griezmann (33 touches) before he was replaced on 82 minutes.
This daring and positive approach was not just a one-off, and several statistics show exactly how Atletico have changed into a more attack-minded team during the opening eight games of the new league campaign.
Their average possession percentage, for starters, has jumped up from 48.5% to 53.8% from last season to this, showing they are now a team that likes to be the main protagonist rather than sitting back to soak up pressure and playing on the counter-attack.
It has not been sterile possession either: Atletico are posing far more attacking threat, enjoying a leap of 20-30% in pretty much every attacking parameter.
Their average number of passes into the final third has increased from 27.3 per game to 37.9, and their average number of touches in the final third is up from 146.6 to 186.5. Closer to goal, the same trend continues: Atletico’s average number of passes into the penalty area has increased from 8.0 to 10.6, and their touches of the ball inside the opposition box is up from 23.1 to 27.9 per game.
The natural consequence of these statistics has been a significant increase in the most important stats: their average number of shots on target per game has jumped from 3.6 to 4.5 per game, and their number of goals per game this season is now 2.25 per game – a massive improvement on last year’s 1.34.
On an individual level, the biggest beneficiary of this new style is Joao Felix, who has been mercifully released from the responsibility of having to fit into the constraints of a disciplined defensive structure and been given far more freedom to express himself.
The Portuguese star’s individual statistics have enjoyed similar improvement to the team’s overall attacking numbers. His average number of ball touches per game this season is 57.3, compared to 39.8 last season, resulting in much better production in terms of his average number of shots (2.7 to 3.3), assists (0.05 to 0.32) and goals (0.31 to 0.79).
But there is also another player whose emergence into a more consistently involved presence on the ball is perhaps even more important. Long-serving skipper Koke has made an outstanding start to the season, unhindered by (and perhaps even liberated by) the loss of Thomas Partey to Arsenal and thriving on the team’s new style of play to become a far greater proactive protagonist.
Koke’s average number of touches per game has jumped from 68.5 to 82.7, with nearly all of those additional involvements coming in the middle third (39.0 touches per game to 52.6). And his use of the ball is much more positive and penetrative, with his average number of progressive (forward) passes increasing from 3.9 per game to 9.1 per game, yielding an average progressive distance of 335.6 yards per game (up from 202.5 last season).
To translate these numbers simply: Koke is getting more on the ball in the middle of the pitch, and he is passing the ball forward rather than sideways. Interestingly, Atletico’s only attacking statistic which has actually slightly decreased this season, despite their increased possession and attacking play, is their average number of crosses into the penalty area (11.1 to 11.0 per game). This tells us Atletico are less focused on width and more interested in playing through the middle, with Koke and Joao Felix as the main protagonists.
These statistics paint the picture of a wider trend which cannot be denied. So far this season, Atletico Madrid are quite simply a more attack-minded team, and those attacks have also been more effective. When you combine this with the best defensive record in the league on the back of arguably the world’s best goalkeeper, you’ve got the recipe for something pretty special.
All things considered, perhaps it’s time to say that Atletico are not merely a contender for the title, but the favourites.