Robbie Dunne reports from Spain on why at least one of the leading sides has avoided an identity crisis
When it comes to identity, you don't need to scratch too far below the surface to see what Atlético Madrid are all about.
What's rare is beautiful, and while the true end of summer in Madrid was ushered in with a rare day of rain on Wednesday, something else that has become increasingly scarce happened on Saturday night: Jan Oblak conceded a goal. And it was beautiful.
Atlético Madrid have long been the benchmark of excellence in defense across Europe. By the time Tiago hammered the ball to the roof of the net to make it 7-1 against Granada with the very top of his boot, many were hailing them as the best team in Europe, without any conditions attached.
You would be hard pushed to find a team with a stronger identity: Atléti know who they are, how they want to play and how they want to be perceived.
They have competition, sure, but Barcelona are languishing in fourth place and with their own issues given their high standards. Aleix Vidal looks to be on his way out of the club, and both Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alaba remain injured meaning Luis Enrique was forced to opt for a 3-4-3 against a Deportivo La Coruña side who offered very little resistance as they went down 4-0.
The manager suggested that he might move forward with that formation, based on its success at the weekend, but you have to fear for the worst against the better teams they face in the coming weeks. They welcome Manchester City to the Camp Nou on Tuesday night in a game that will surely test their mettle, as both Roberto and Alba will also be rushed back from injury to improve Lucho's squad.
Real Madrid drew were facing their own mini-crisis too, having drawn all three of their previous games in La Liga. That was before Zinedine Zidane's battlecry ahead of their encounter with Real Betis.
"If we've drawn four games I am the person responsible for that," said the manager. "Perhaps we have to be more concentrated, intense – everything influences things in games." He got that intensity back in spades, downing Gus Poyet's side 6-1 as the pressure mounts for the Betis manager.
Whether that victory solves their longer-term problems is another thing. Isco is constantly having to reject claims he will leave the club, while Casemiro's injury and absence is worthy of its own mini-series on Netflix. Do they miss him or don't they? Will he return and make things better or is it a figment of the media's imagination? A ratings hit.
Image: Nick Potts EMPICS Sport
The point is that we are not entirely sure who Barcelona or Real Madrid are this year. Who they will become with a string of injuries, and how they will respond when they are put to the sword by better opponents? That's anyone's guess.
Atlético don't seem to have that problem. After a shaky start to life by the Manzanares, Kevin Gameiro is reaping the rewards of a more expansive attacking formula, while Yannick Ferreira Carrasco has surprised and surpassed expectations. He scored three and assisted two more during their win on Saturday night.
A lot will be written in the coming weeks and months about Simeone's side, but this evolution has been in the works since Antoine Griezmann said Atlético would be fighting relegation if they continued on the course they were on, following two draws with newly-promoted sides to start the season.
Los Rojiblancos might yet finish the year empty-handed, but to have fought back from such a poor start to their league campaign but they appear to be head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to identity. They have found a tactic that doesn't leave them exposed at the back, while also harnessing and encouraging the attacking talent in the team.
It's worth mentioning, however, that Sevilla won for the first time in 23 attempts away from home against Leganés; a masterful strike from Pablo Sarabia gave them a 2-3 lead, and they currently sit third in the league.
Image: Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli, left, and Barcelona coach Luis Enrique greet each other before a Spanish Super Cup first-leg soccer at Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan stadium in Seville (AP Photo/Antonio Pizarro)
For all the good work done by Unai Emery in Europe, his side often struggled in La Liga. Jorge Sampaoli has built a squad with enough inventiveness and creativity to allow them to dream, while also building trust with the likes of Samir Nasri.
Whether it's a dig at Guardiola or a genuine sentiment, the former Arsenal and City attacker said: "With the coach we have a relationship of trust. It is thanks to him and his assistant that I am here. They empower me a lot, they give me a lot of confidence. When I have a little bit less, they are always there to talk to me, to put me in the best condition.
"When you have a coach like that behind you, you have to make it count on the pitch and give the maximum. I may miss matches, but the level of commitment should be there at least."
Nasri's goal on the outskirts of Madrid against Leganés on Saturday helped them gain all three points, but with Barcelona and Atlético Madrid traveling to the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán in the coming weeks, we will get a good insight into what Sampaoli is doing differently to his predecessor in the Sevilla dugout.