After suffering two surprise defeats in their last three La Liga games, Diego Simeone had asked for a reaction from his players ahead of Saturday night’s Madrid Derby at the creaking Vicente Calderon, but perhaps for the first time in his tenure, there was none.
Los Rojiblancos fell to a crushing 3-0 defeat to their city rivals as Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch and Zinedine Zidane off it stole the headlines.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Yes, Atleti had stumbled of late. Defeats at high-flying Sevilla and Real Sociedad had been disappointing but not entirely surprising given how well both had started the season.
But given that Simeone’s men had not lost in their last six La Liga games against Los Merengues and were undefeated in their last 22 home league games, Atleti were favourites to reignite their season and close the gap on the league leaders.
Instead, Zidane did a job on his opposite number, as the visitors increased their lead over Atleti to nine points.
Perhaps the gap is not unbridgeable, but with Real having only lost once in 32 league games under the Frenchman, it’s difficult to see how Atleti can close that gap, even with two thirds of the season left to play.
The home fans must surely worry that Simeone’s rallying call was met such an uncharacteristically insipid performance – particularly in a game of such magnitude.
This was a fixture they simply could not afford to lose. And it was a game they surely would have fancied winning on seeing Real’s teamsheet before kickoff.
Shorn of Sergio Ramos and Pepe in central defence, and without Casemiro and Kroos in the middle of the park, Los Blancos had a vulnerable look about them, on paper at least.
In contrast, Simeone had more or less his best eleven available. In that context, one wonders just how deeply this defeat will affect the Argentine and his players. Real matched their intensity from the off.
And by the time Ronaldo made it 3-0 on 76 minutes, Atleti looked shell shocked and worryingly dispirited.
Zidane may be only a baby in managerial terms, but on Saturday night he hinted strongly once again that he may be as natural a manager as he was a player. The stats are impressive and grow more so with every passing week.
One defeat in 32 league games since taking charge last January. Unbeaten in their last 24. Twelve wins in their last 13 away games. In fact, Zidane has not experienced an away defeat as Real manager!
Zidane pulled a surprise by matching Simeone’s 4-4-2 formation in response to Real’s injury list, leaving Benzema on the bench as the brilliant Isco played in behind Ronaldo in attack.
The deployment of Gareth Bale and young Lucas Vasquez on the left and right of midfield proved critical as their tireless work and concentration nullified the threat posed by Atleti’s fullbacks, Juanfran and Filipe Luis.
Real forced Atleti to play through congested midfield areas, stifled their threat and countered menacingly all evening.
Most striking, however, were the work rate and intensity shown by the visitors, which gave them the platform to allow their greater quality tell, and showcased how well Real’s players have responded to Zidane’s management .
Rarely have Simeone’s men be so utterly tamed. The defeat is a massive blow to all at the Calderon in a season they had started so impressively and in which they had genuine hopes of domestic glory.
Atleti’s sudden troubles are a puzzler, but could it be that Simeone has responded to jibes that he only knows one way to win by experimenting with a more expansive approach – and that this is upsetting the balance of his team?
Moving Koke into central midfield has, for example, given them greater possession and creativity – but at the same time makes them a little more open.
And Los Rojiblancos have certainly been looking to get more bodies in the opposition box from open play, again leaving them susceptible to quick counters.
Perhaps these tweaks have allowed a few cracks to appear in the Atletico Madrid edifice?
Whatever the reasons, how Simeone responds to Saturday’s result and his side’s sudden weakness will be one of the stories of the season.