For two teams of such drastically different profiles, the Madrid derby has fittingly gone through some drastic swings over the past few seasons. You only have to look at the last year alone.
After a period when Diego Simeone seemed to have finally broken the mental hold that Real Madrid had over the fixture, when Atletico kept winning and winning the fixture in the domestic league, Real Madrid then responded by beating them in ever more psychologically demanding ways in the Champions League: with late goals and then finally a penalty shoot-out.
It seemed to culminate in November’s 3-0 victory for Zinedine Zidane’s side, finally winning in the league again, when they were so superior. They had that aura.
That psychology really is so significant with a derby, and it struck me again when I went back to Anfield last week for Liverpool’s 3-1 win. Everton had arrived on such an unbelievable run, but then turned up at that game and just looked so average. It was as if the conviction that had enhanced them over the previous few weeks had evaporated - and all because of the recent history of the fixture, and because they have lost it so often in the last 20 years.
For Liverpool, it was the opposite, and it reminded me of all the times we played the Merseyside derby when I was assistant at Anfield. You like to think that history doesn’t matter, and to just concentrate on the next game, but it clearly does matter. You could see our Liverpool players just felt that superiority before any derby. They knew they generally got the better of Everton, so it gave them that edge, that conviction to take everything they did to an extra level.
That sense of superiority intensifies all the individual actions that then make collective tactics work. That was one of the interesting things about the last Madrid derby in November, too. Simeone was going through a spell where it was like he was looking to evolve the tactics of his side.
Before that, after all, we were so familiar with Atletico’s blueprint. They were intense, with high levels of solidity and work ethic, but all in front of the opposition. They would not risk balls in their own half, and play a lot of the time on the second ball, breaking brilliantly. Generally, on winning the ball back, they would look to arrive in the opposition box within three or four passes. If they couldn’t, they would use the full-backs and wide areas, where Koke has had such a key role.
At the start of this season, though, Koke played more in the middle and it was like they were trying to build more from there. It didn’t really work, and they uncharacteristically lost a lot of big games, especially that 3-0 derby.
So, in the last few months they’ve gone back to the Simeone Atletico roots, and Koke has gone back out wide. They ultimately just had players more suited for that, signed for that, and who have been coached to that approach. Atletico now just look comfortable again, like they’re playing with that conviction.
It should make this a pulsating derby because both teams approach it in optimistic form, and maybe their best of the campaign.
Real are the complete opposite of Atletico in this regard too. Whereas Simeone has fashioned a reactive side, Zidane is overseeing a proactive one. They look to control the middle and create superiority there with players like Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, and sometimes Casemiro, and then open the wide areas with the full-backs.
The one slight issue for Real is that Modric has maybe dropped off a little, given how crucial he is to setting the tempo of a game, but Isco is currently on supreme form. He is the one with the freedom in front of the midfielders, who links the play and feeds the strikers. Because of that, I can see Zidane going for 4-2-3-1 rather than 4-3-3, and Koke out wide for Atletico.
The biggest question is maybe over the position of Antoine Griezmann. Will he have the freedom to move or, because of the opposition, will it be like in the past where he goes out wide and it is almost a 4-5-1? Real’s primary weakness in defence is also in the wide areas, behind the full-backs, so how Simeone approaches this early on will tell a lot.
I think it will be a very tight and close game, hugely dependent on who gets the first goal, but also go right down to the final few minutes. If that does happen, though, it could favour Real because individual quality will come to bear. The biggest difference between the teams is of course the standard of player that Zidane has, none more so than Cristiano Ronaldo, but his role for the side has been interesting of late.
As he gets older, his movement has naturally reduced and he is quieter in overall play. This quietness has times benefitted the collective performance of the team though because he has attracted the attention of the opposition for other attackers to then create havoc in the extra space, but then remains so dangerous when someone supplies him with the ball.
Real will naturally see more of that ball in this game, but that will almost suit Atletico if they manage to get that crucial first goal. That could be what it comes down to. It will have a huge mental effect.