Here we stand, on the eve of what will be the sixth Madrid derby of the season, and it's still a little weird acknowledging that perennial little brother Atlético Madrid should be considered favorites. After their devastating late defeat in last year's Champions League final, Atléti have beaten Real three times and drawn twice, and in the process have lifted the Spanish Supercup in front of their rivals' faces while also (quite literally) kicking them out of the Copa del Rey. If they're going to make it six in a row undefeated, they'll need to rely on the less-heralded aspect of their game: their attack.
Despite what threatened to be a full on raid of the roster—Barcelona tried all they could to wrench Koke away, Diego Godín was mentioned with every center back-needy big team in Europe, and Miranda tried shopping himself around but Atléti's €30 million price tag ultimately scared off potential bidders—this Atlético squad is largely the same as last year's in terms of personnel and playing style. From their staunch defense they rode to the La Liga title last season, they only lost Filipe Luís. His replacements—Guillherme Siqueira and Cristian Ansaldi—have done a pretty solid job filling his boots. Their preferred midfield of Koke, Gabi, Tiago, and Arda Turan hasn't missed a beat, still charging tirelessly up and down the pitch either pressing for a tackle or beating feet towards goal.
What has been overhauled completely, in typical Atlético fashion, is the forward line. David Villa
retired signed with MLS and Diego Costa, following in the proud tradition of Atlético strikers honed in Madrid then sold off to dominate another country, is now with Chelsea. In their place, the club brought in Antoine Griezmann from Real Sociedad and Mario Mandžukić of Bayern Munich fame. The two new forwards make up for much of what was lost before while also adding a new level of flexibility.
There's no way the Rojiblancos could've found an exact replacement for Diego Costa. He is a singular player, probably the most well-rounded striker in the world. His ability to hold up play, hunt down passes into space behind the defense, occupy central defenders with his movement and strength, finish chances with both feet and his head, and lead the defensive pressing by quickly closing down opponents made him the perfect player for manager Diego Simeone's system. By himself, he had basically all the skills necessary to make Simeone's tactics work. Villa was important, too, but he mainly offered strong finishing and a commitment to defending from the front.
Between Griezmann and Mandžukić, they can just about make up for what their previous strike force brought to the attack. Griezmann—who was primarily a goal-scoring winger before Simeone made him a second striker—brings the pace, the channel-running, the off-ball movement, and the counter threat. Mandžukić has the strength, the aerial ability, the tenacity, and the hold-up play. They both bring the willingness to bring the pressure and, most importantly, the goals.
Of course, there's more to these guys than their ability to compensate for Diego Costa's departure. They have a style all to themselves.
Last season, Griezmann was one of the two or three best players in La Liga playing for a team outside the top three. He scored 16 goals and was an all-around terror down the flanks, partnered with fellow wing demon Carlos Vela. This season has been more of the same:
Every aspect of Grizi's game stems from his immaculate touch. It's most obvious in his goals, which he bends, crashes, chips, prods, or loops in, depending on what the situation requires, but the rest of his skills also reflect the precise way in which he touches the ball.
He's not the fanciest dribbler, so his highlights aren't packed with gummy-legged wriggles past a number of defenders. Instead, he prefers to run by the defense using his pace and the uncanny ability to nudge the ball onward at the exact speed, distance, and angle required to place it outside the reach of his marker. From there, his speed does the rest of the work.
While he's not really known for his creative passing, he still excels at little first-time impromptu flicks that roll into space before the defense has time to react. Next thing you know, Arda Turan has run onto the ball and completed the one-two with Griezmann, who made his way towards the back post to fire home the return pass. Youngblood has feet of feather, and he makes good use of them.
Mandžukić, on the other hand, is a completely different type of player. If Griezmann is like a cultured, well-coifed show dog, Mandžukić is like a pit bull. He can't really match up with Costa on any of the technical aspects of forward play, but not even the Brazilian brings more ferocious energy to every play than Mandžukić. (Remember, this is the same guy who can't even turn his intensity off in practice, and who gets in skirmishes with teammates for treating them in a random morning drill in October the way he would an opponent in the Champions League final. Here he is chopping down Bastian Schweinsteiger in a "friendly" rondo drill.)
As for his actual skills on the pitch, the Croatian's best asset is his head. Between his 15 goals in La Liga and the UCL, six came off of his noggin. This fits his reputation, as sprinting towards the goal, shoving around his marker with hands and elbows, then splaying out to get his forehead on a cross seems like the most fun way he can imagine spending his time on the field. Mandžukić is also sneakily good with the ball at his feet, is very good at maintaining possession by nabbing long balls and holding off the defense while his fellow attackers join him, and always finds himself in the right spot to get on the end of through balls or deflected shots. He's a top-grade poacher.
With these two forwards in action, as well as their backups Fernando Torres and Raúl Jiménez, Atlético Madrid has all the tools necessary to threaten this hobbled Real Madrid team. Real will be missing both of their preferred central defenders (Pepe and Sergio Ramos are both out because of injuries) and in their place will be Rafaël Varane and Nacho, a natural fullback.
For as dominant as Real have looked for most of the season, they've nonetheless looked shaky defensively in practically every match they've played. This is largely a result of playing six attack-minded players in front of the back four, which isn't the best strategy for keeping clean sheets. Now, this attacking lineup does make up for their frailties when out of possession by laying a near-constant siege on their opponent's goal, so it's not like the choice is a fatal one. Plus, with Marcelo and James Rodríguez also missing this match, Real will feature a couple more disciplined players than normal.
Regardless, Atlético has already proven that they can more than hold their own against a full-strength Real team, so they should be feeling confident. The Rojiblancos remain within touching distance of their cross-town rivals in the league table, currently seven points back, but without a win on Saturday, they'd need Real to suffer a pretty significant collapse down the stretch in order to have any hopes of retaining their league title. For Atléti, this is a must-win.
Last season, these defenders and midfielders proved that they were capable of helming a title-winning side. It will be on their new forwards to maintain the standard set by the departed ones.