Atlético Madrid are scoring more goals than ever before under Diego Simeone, and they might just be mounting their most significant title tilt yet. We look at the numbers behind their fantastic start to 2023-24.
Third place has long felt like Atlético Madrid’s rightful place in La Liga. And that’s where they are right now.
Only this time, things are different.
Real Madrid and Barcelona aren’t the two teams ahead of them, but Barcelona’s absence isn’t the most surprising aspect of the top of the table. It’s the goals-scored column.
Atlético are a new team these days.
The Cívitas Metropolitano is no longer a place of meagre returns; of 1-0 wins and backs-to-the-wall defending. Diego Simeone’s side are actually scoring lots of goals. More than anyone else in La Liga, in fact.
They are the joint-highest scorers in the division this season (25 goals) along with Girona, while in 2023, only two teams in Europe’s top five leagues have scored more goals than them (72), with their tally putting them level with Pep Guardiola’s free-scoring and treble-winning Manchester City.
No other team in La Liga has scored more than 63 goals in 2023, with Real Madrid their closest challengers.
Since the break for the World Cup last year, Atlético have been on fire. They have lost only four of their 33 league games in 2023, and have picked up more points than any other team in La Liga. Were the league season to run by calendar year, Atlético Madrid would be top of the table with a game in hand and five games of the 38-game campaign to go.
So, what’s different about them now?
The most notable change has been the formation. The 4-4-2 is no more. Simeone has switched to a 5-3-2 that some might assume was – given the kind of manager he is – a defensive move, but it has in fact created an environment for more of his attacking players to flourish.
Antoine Griezmann (7) and Álvaro Morata (6) rank second and third in the individual goalscorers list behind Jude Bellingham (10), while Saúl Ñíguez is joint first when it comes to assists (5) despite only starting six of a possible 10 games. It all points to the fact that, in attack at least, the players have greater licence to lose their shape and roam into advanced positions with the added security of an extra centre-back behind them. This is a team brimming with confidence at the moment. Their 25 goals have come from just 18 xG, suggesting their players are finishing chances off exceptionally well at the moment.
The wing-backs get high up the pitch, too. On the right, Nahuel Molina has been a revelation since returning from Qatar a World Cup winner, while Samuel Lino has come back from his season-long loan at Valencia a formidable attacking left wing-back. Lino provides direct running and dribbling ability, which has proved incredibly useful in helping move the team up the pitch at speed, but he also has fantastic technical ability – something that is now increasingly important in this team. Even in defence.
Grit and nous might previously have been the two main prerequisites for an Atlético Madrid defender under Simeone, but now he looks for a little more flair. As much is clear from some of the teams he has selected this season.
Atlético are more comfortable than ever before under Simeone when it comes to controlling and dictating games, and that is largely down to the type of player he now plays in defence. In the past, Atléti were fine playing against opponents who wanted the ball, but would come unstuck when their opponents had even less desire than them to control the game. So often, they lacked the guile to break down low blocks, and teams started to work out how to play against them.
But not any more.
There has been an acceptance on Simeone’s part that he needs his team to control games more often, and that starts in defence. He still likes to have walking-yellow-card wind-up merchants and hardmen at the back, but he doesn’t always go with them. He still has Stefan Savic (27 yellow cards across 2020-21 and 2021-22) and José Giménez (17 yellow cards across 2021-22 and 2022-23) in the squad, and he also brought in another bruiser (though a rather less ill-disciplined one) in Caglar Söyüncü in the summer.
Giménez and Söyüncü have both missed portions of the season with injury, but Simeone has also been happy to drop any or all of them in favour of better ball-playing defenders in the back three. The success that Mario Hermoso has had at left-sided centre-back over the past year has likely been a significant part of the reason that Simeone has gone in this direction.
Hermoso had previously felt like a bit of a lost soul in Madrid, but he is now a key cog in this new Atlético team, particularly in how he progresses play with his passing.
He ranks among La Liga’s top 20 players for successful passes despite playing for a team that has played one game fewer than most other teams and still, despite playing out from the back more than before, only averages 52.2% possession. (Incredibly, that is Atlético’s highest possession in any season in more than a decade under Simeone.)
Hermoso is bold in possession, too, and Simeone wants him to take risks. Only Girona’s Aleix García has attempted (26) or successfully completed (21) more switches of play in La Liga in 2023-24 than Hermoso. The Spaniard has attempted 18 and completed an impressive 16, with his long balls out to Molina on the right a clear and effective tactic that Atléti are now employing.
The signing of César Azpilicueta in the summer also signalled a step towards trying to build out from the back more, while Simeone has also started playing Axel Witsel – a midfielder by trade – at the heart of his defence.
Simeone stuck to what he knew for the derby win over Real Madrid in September, with Savic and Giménez starting alongside Hermoso, but there have also been several important games when Azpilicueta and Witsel have been preferred in defence.
These are all small changes, though, and this is still recognisably Simeone’s team. When they go ahead, they are happy to sit back and protect their lead and they are as lethal as ever on the break. They have scored more goals on the counter-attack this season (four) than any other team in the Spanish top flight.
That will be part of the reason that their possession is still lower than many of their rivals (eight teams average more possession than them), and also why they are averaging fewer shots per game (11.7) than in any of the last five seasons.
They are, however, creating better quality chances, with their 3.4 big chances per game the highest in any season since Simeone took over in 2011, and their 1.8 xG per game also the highest on record (since 2015-16). Their 2023-24 rate of 2.50 goals per game means this is only the second time Atlético have ventured above two goals per game under Simeone after the title-winning campaign of 2013-14. Even back then, they only managed 2.03 per game.
At the other end of the pitch, they aren’t as watertight as they used to be, which is only natural as they commit more players forward to attacks, but they still have the second-best defensive record in La Liga this season (nine goals conceded). The fact that they are conceding goals exactly in line with their expected goals against (9.0 xG) proves that they really are still solid at the back.
So, this is still very much Simeone’s Atlético Madrid, but the changes he has made have meant they are no longer as one-dimensional, which had in recent years been a criticism aimed at them.
It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that there are only two teams who have a better disciplinary record in La Liga this season than Atlético (22 yellow cards, one red). They have committed fewer fouls (108) than every other team in the league. There is palpably less frustration at the club than before. It was only a little over a year ago that Hermoso was climbing into the stands to argue with disgruntled supporters. The Metropolitano is a happy place once again.
Back in third place, Atlético now sit in what, certainly in financial terms, is their spot in La Liga. But right now, they are three points off leaders and rivals Real Madrid with a better head-to-head record, a superior goal difference and, crucially, a game in hand.
On current form – their six successive wins is the longest such run in Europe’s top five leagues at present – there is every reason to believe Atlético will be higher than third by the time that game in hand, against struggling Sevilla, is played in late December.
There is a duopoly in La Liga that Simeone’s side have done a sensational job of challenging over the past 12 years, but they haven’t won two titles in four years since doing so in 1969-70 and 1971-73. Having last won La Liga in 2019-20, winning it this year would therefore be hugely significant.
If they carry on the way they are going, this new Atlético Madrid might just prove to be the best one Simeone has built.