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The Battle of Madrid

 

Reigning LaLiga champions Real Madrid host current league leaders Atlético Madrid this weekend, in a major test for Diego Simeone’s side and their aspirations for their first league title in seven years.

By: Luis Ledesma

Atlético Madrid haven’t lost any of their last 26 league matches (W17 D9) – a club record unbeaten run in LaLiga and the best current streak of any side in the top five European leagues. They come up against a Real Madrid who inflicted their last defeat with a 1-0 victory back in February thanks to a solitary Karim Benzema goal at the Santiago Bernabéu.

The Red-And-White Wall

With just two goals conceded and eight clean sheets in 10 league games, Atlético have the tightest defence in the top five European leagues so far this season. The only club to have kept the same number of shutouts in 2020-21 are Ligue 1 outfit Bordeaux, but the French side have played three more games and conceded 11 more goals overall.

Having a solid defence is a hallmark of Atlético under Simeone, with their attacking qualities weighing them down in recent seasons. The Argentine has improved their attack, but most impressively while managing to also improve their already tight defensive unit. With just two goals conceded in their opening 10 LaLiga games of the season, Atlético have equalled the best defensive record of any side 10 games in to a LaLiga season, level with Deportivo La Coruña in 1993-94.

Based on the quality of chances that Simeone’s side have afforded their opponents in 2020-21, you would have expected the average side to have conceded nine goals with Atlético’s xG against being 9.2.

The Unbeatable Jan Oblak

Without a doubt, one of the main reasons for this impressive defensive performance is their talented goalkeeper Jan Oblak.

Not only has the Slovenian got the best save ratio in LaLiga this season (94%) he has also prevented the most goals from being scored by opponents.

 

 

Looking at the quality of shots on target that opposing sides have fired at him (xG on target), the ‘average’ goalkeeper would be expected to concede seven times. In conceding just two of these shots, Oblak has outperformed by five goals – a tally only Elche’s Edgar Badia has matched in 2020-21.

The Luis Suárez Effect

The changes in defence, the explosion of Marcus Llorente and João Félix’s coming of age have all been factors behind Atletico’s success so far in 2020-21, but the positive effect of Luis Suárez’s arrival probably outweighs them all.

To accommodate him, Simeone has adjusted his attacking methods whilst not abandoning the direct style that’s proved so difficult for opposition sides to handle in the past. Atlético have scored 19 goals from open play in LaLiga so far this season, with Suárez scoring five of those – league highs both as a team and as an individual.

In total, Simeone’s team has scored 90% of its goals from open play (19/21), which is the highest proportion of goals scored in this manner across any of the previous complete seasons that the Argentine has been in charge.

Real Defensive Disorder

Aware of their attacking limitations, Zinedine Zidane has built a Real Madrid team based on defensive strength and achieved club record numbers last season in terms of goals conceded (25 – their lowest tally in a 38-game season) and clean sheets (19 – in no season have they kept more). This season, however, Zidane’s side has become more vulnerable at the back.

Be it through design or disorganisation, Real Madrid have seen their style change in 2020-21. They have averaged 1.88 xG per game in LaLiga this season, which is higher than in each of the last two league campaigns, but this has had consequences on their defensive numbers.

In 2019-20, Real gave up just 0.88 xG per game in LaLiga but this season that’s up to 1.32 xG per game – their worst average on record since 2013-14.

 

Sergio Ramos’ Return

One piece of good news is the return of Sergio Ramos. Crucial both for his leadership in defence and for his goalscoring knack, the presence of the captain is essential for next Saturday’s game.

In addition, the French coach will be able to recall Daniel Carvajal for his right full back, which means that he should be able to select the defence that offered the best performance in LaLiga last season – the quartet of Daniel Carvajal, Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos and Ferland Mendy.

To put it simply: Real Madrid have not lost any of their 16 league games since last season with these four players in the starting XI.

Diego Simeone´s Headache

The next derby at the Alfredo Di Stéfano will be the eighth LaLiga meeting between Zidane and Simeone – the most common pairing in the history of this Madrid derby in league competition.

Just one of the previous seven have been won by Simeone and Atlético; this coming in February 2016 thanks to a second half Antoine Griezmann goal at the Bernabéu.

Across all competitions, history has been even kinder for Zinedine Zidane, who achieved the first of his 11 titles as Real Madrid coach in a match against Simeone’s Atlético Madrid – raising the Champions League trophy in Milan following the penalty shootout in 2016.

Simeone has only won 18% of his matches against the French manager across all competitions, his second-lowest percentage of victories against any coach he has faced at least five times – only higher than his record against Gerard Martino (17%). Even so, Simeone, and this version of Atletico, are better placed than ever before to assert their dominance, not just over Spain’s capital, but the whole of La Liga.

 


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