Atletico Madrid are Real Madrid’s equals on paper, but not in mindset

With extra time goals from Saul Niguez and Koke, Atletico Madrid looked to have set the tone of their rivalry with Real Madrid for the season to come. Diego Simeone’s side had lost two European finals to their closest and fiercest adversaries before meeting them once again in Tallinn for the UEFA Super Cup in early August. Their 4-2 win bookended what had been an extremely positive summer for Atleti.

They kept hold of their best players (Diego Godin, Antoine Griezmann and Jan Oblak were all linked with moves away) and added some real quality in the form of Thomas Lemar, Gelson Martins, Rodri and Santiago Arias. With Real Madrid in something of a transition following the exit of Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo, and Barcelona still at the mercy of an injury to or dip in form from Lionel Messi, Atletico Madrid were expected to mount a genuine title challenge this season.

Those expectations haven’t quite translated into an early run of form, though. With just six games of the new La Liga season played, Atleti already find themselves adrift of pace-setters Barcelona and Real Madrid, dropping points to Valencia, Celta Vigo and Eibar. A five-point gap was cut to two during the week, but with the Madrid derby this weekend that could soon widen again to five. That would feel like quite a wide gap to bridge between now and May.

Given the quality of Atletico Madrid’s squad, this is a clear underachievement. They should be doing better. Their poor start has only added more significance to this weekend’s Madrid derby at the Santiago Bernabeu, with a positive result necessary if Simeone’s side are to stand any chance of winning the Liga title this season.

So if their issues aren’t down to personnel, is it possible that mentality could be Atleti’s problem? For years, the mindset instilled in their players by Simeone has served them well. They have been the plucky, battle-hardened underdogs, becoming the toughest team, not just in Spain, but in all of Europe, to break down and beat. Simeone has achieved unprecedented success this way.

The problem is that this mentality only tends to work for teams that, in terms of their natural quality, are inferior to the competition. It’s a tactic used to level the playing field. But Simeone shouldn’t want to level the playing field anymore. Atletico Madrid now boast a squad comparable to anything else in the European game at the moment. The underdog mindset is no longer so applicable.

Atletico Madrid’s whole identity as a club and an institution is pretty much defined by how they see themselves in relation to Real Madrid. Atleti are, as they see it, the people’s team. While Real Madrid represent the royal family and the aristocracy, Atletico Madrid are the club of the working person. Their old Vicente Calderon stadium stood as a monument to this, squeezed between the Manzanares river and the working-class Arganzuela district of the Spanish capital.

And from this, indirectly, comes their underdog spirit which predates Simeone’s appointment at the club seven years ago. As ingrained as this mentality is, though, Atletico Madrid must aim to shake it off. This isn’t to say that Simeone should ditch his whole coaching approach, at least not in terms of the nuts and bolts of his methods, but changes may be required.

The Argentinean’s gushing comments after Atleti’s win over Getafe last weekend were somewhat peculiar given the routine nature of the victory and demonstrated how he and his players can, on occasion, be dragged down by their inferiority complex. We have seen that more than once over the opening few weeks of the season.

Atletico Madrid can’t afford to feel inferior as they make the trip to the Santiago Bernabeu this weekend or they will be swept aside by a Real Madrid team already in their groove under Julen Lopetegui. The socio-economic aspects to this rivalry have been dulled over time and now so have the sporting aspects. Atleti must make that apparent on Saturday.

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