The personnel may have changed, but the formula was the same. Atletico Madrid won the Spanish Super Cup by defeating Real Madrid 1-0 on Friday night with a performance typical of those that saw them win La Liga and reach the final of the Champions League last season.
All the tenets of the tactical approach Diego Simeone has developed in his two-and-a-half years as Atletico coach were in evidence as Los Colchoneros triumphed over their city rivals and set down a marker for the season ahead.
The quick start, the compact and well-organised defensive shell thereafter, and the variety and quality of set pieces for which this side have become famous were all on show.
So, too, of course was the uglier side of this undoubted success story—the consistent fouling and the harassing of officials by players and staff.
But after a tetchy and ill-tempered encounter, in the final reckoning, it was difficult to begrudge Atletico a well-deserved victory.
Atletico started on the front foot, pressing aggressively and launching quick and direct attacks whenever they won possession. It took just two minutes for them to go ahead—Mario Mandzukic gaining a march on Raphael Varane and firing home following Antoine Griezmann’s flick-on.
The new strike pairing, signed to replace the 40-goal duo of David Villa and Diego Costa, still need time to polish their understanding, but they both worked hard and were disciplined in carrying out their defensive duties.
The rip-roaring start was followed by the inevitable reversion to defensive mode—two compact banks of four, with the two strikers shuffling side-to-side in front of them. Atletico packed the centre of the pitch and forced Madrid out to the flanks.
Even after Simeone was sent from the touchline after handling the fourth official midway through the first half (only to re-emerge in the first row of public seats behind the dugouts for the second half), his team continued to play in the manner he and his staff have drilled into them.
As Washington Post columnist Michael Caley noted towards the end of last season, Atletico’s tactical setup is designed both to maximise the quality of their own chances and reduce the quality of those created by their opponents.
Madrid did have some presentable opportunities—the best flashed wide by Gareth Bale from inside the area following good work from Xabi Alonso and James Rodriguez towards the end of the first half—but it was Atletico who had the better ones.
Raul Garcia headed over from the centre of the area and later saw a flicked volley rebound off the crossbar to safety, while Griezmann dragged wide when presented with an excellent chance inside the area.
In the second half, when Madrid were the team in need of a goal, it was Atletico who were the more dangerous side.
Both of those Raul Garcia chances came from set pieces. Atletico were highly proficient at set pieces last season, with just under a quarter of their league goals coming from dead-ball situations.
The Diego Godin goal that secured the league title was scored from a set piece, as was the goal that put them ahead in their Champions League final defeat to Madrid, scored by the same player.
Simeone has said in the past that he believes intensive set-piece preparation is one of the keys to bridging the financial gap between Atletico and La Liga's big two, and that training-ground work was clear on Friday.
There were out-swingers and in-swingers, high deliveries and low deliveries, flat deliveries, curved deliveries and lofted deliveries.
In Gabi and Koke, Simeone has two players capable of providing a consistently excellent supply; in the likes of Godin, Miranda and Raul Garcia, he has a trio of tall and strong players very much capable of getting on the end of them.
It would be difficult to say that the players Atletico lost this summer will not be missed.
Costa was a talismanic force, an energetic leader of the press and a superb outlet into the channels. Filipe Luis was strong and composed in his defensive work and moved forward adroitly. Thibaut Courtois was the sort of goalkeeper whose saves gain you points over the course of the season.
Friday's match was, in actuality, little more than a glorified friendly, and we must be careful of reading too much into the result.
With all that said, the match and the result showed us that despite the new faces, this will still, deep down, be the same snarling Atletico side of last season. For the sake of an interesting title race, that can only be a good thing.