Atletico Mineiro are riding the crest of a wave. Galo sit atop the Brasileirao with a four-point cushion over nearest rivals Palmeiras, who they recently beat 2-0 in a crunch match, while they also advanced to the semi-finals of the Libertadores after dismantling River Plate over two legs.

If that wasn’t enough, their already star-packed squad has been strengthened by the arrival of ex-Chelsea and Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa as they bid for their first piece of major silverware since 2014.

Under the guidance of Cuca - who lead them to Libertadores glory in 2013 and got an unfancied Santos to last year’s final - Atletico’s success is founded first and foremost on a solid, organized defense.

Typically favoring a 4-2-3-1, Atletico have conceded just 13 goals in 18 games in the league and just 0.27 goals per 90 in the Libertadores. What’s more, they rank in the top five for defensive duels in Brazil and typically restrict their opposition to very few clear opportunities.

Atletico Mineiro’s excellent defensive shape, keeping narrow and squeezing the space between the lines, forcing the River players into wide, less threatening positions.

In Junior Alonso, Rever and Igor Rabello they have experienced, uncompromising center-back options, while goalkeeper Everson is in the best form of his career. The 31-year-old stopper has 8 clean sheets in the league and his 8 saves in the second leg against River Plate further demonstrated his quality between the posts.

Everson's stats from the match against River Plate - Wyscout Player Reports.

Despite this strong emphasis on defense, a key component of Atletico’s success is the use of their full-backs. Rather than camp inside their own half and keep things tight, in possession both fullbacks have license to get forward and give their side width and an extra outlet going forward.

Here we see left-back Arana high and wide against Palmeiras, stretching the play and committing opponents with a powerful run, before delivering a cross that opens the scoring.

Whether it be the European experience of Dodo and Mariano or the youthful energy of Guilherme Arana and Guga, Atletico have two great options in each position, ensuring fantastic competition for the starting berths.

While Cuca has earned a reputation for his disciplined and pragmatic approach, given the quality of players at his disposal he has been able to field a more dominant, forward-thinking side. He has also shown commendable flexibility in terms of set up and approach based on opponent, as demonstrated in the difference in average positions against River and Palmeiras.

Atletico’s contrasting average positions against River (left) and Palmeiras (right) demonstrating their flexibility.

Atletico’s league possession may average 53.1% and their PPDA of 9.76 ranks about only slightly above average for pressing intensity but they excel at creating passing connections all over the pitch.

With the highest passing rate in the division (15.6), Galo use the ball quickly and effectively and also rank highly for progressive passes (3rd) and through balls (4th).

Deep-lying midfielders Tche Tche, Jair and former Liverpool man Allan recycle and distribute the ball effectively and quickly to unleash the array of attacking talent ahead of them.

As Atletico play out from the back, the center-backs split wide and the defensive midfielder drops into the hole to receive the ball as River press high up the pitch.
Atletico demonstrate their shot passing games and press resistance as they play their way out of tight position, drawing in three River players before quickly switching the play out to the right back in acres of space.
Atletico now show their verticality and ability to break the lines as the right-back punches a pass into the channel to create a 2v1 situation. Also, note how many players are committed forward with five Atletico players in behind River’s midfield line.

It is this strength and depth of options all over the squad, particularly in offensive positions, that is another key factor in Atletico’s ability to challenge on both domestic and continental fronts. The fact that they have made the third-highest substitutions points to this clever squad rotation and the quality on the bench ensures there is no drop off from the first XI.

In Nacho Fernandez they have arguably one of the finest playmakers in South America and the ex-River man has registered an average of 1.78 through balls and 1.31 smart passes per 90 in the Brasileirao, placing him in the top five in both metrics.

Zaracho (centre) shows his dynamism as he bursts from midfield into the space left by the staggered River back line.
Although the River defenders seem to have got back into position, Zaracho arcs his run on the blindside of his marker to dart into the space behind, aware he is being played on by the defender at the near post. On the right-wing, Hulk beats his man and stands up a perfect cross which Zaracho acrobatically scissor kicks into the net for the opener.

Furthermore, the energetic and versatile Matias Zaracho (above) has grown into an increasingly decisive player, as displayed by his spectacular brace in the Libertadores quarter-final, while Jefferson Savarino (below) adds more invention and trickery. Indeed, the Venezuelan’s combined xG and xA per 90 of 0.75 is the highest in the league, even ahead of Flamengo’s Giorgian de Arrascaeta.

Savarino demonstrates his threat from the flank, occupying three Santos defenders before playing a cute one-two and scampering through into the box and slot in the first goal of the game.

Throw in the likes of Eduardo Vargas, Keno and Hyoran and you are spoilt for choice in the final third. Furthermore, it also points to Atletico’s impressive recruitment, not just within Brazil but across South America.

The emerging trend of Brazilian clubs looking further afield for ideas and input, combined with their growing financial advantage, is reflected in a more diverse range of nationalities and Atletico are one of the best current examples.

Another hallmark of Atletico’s success is their clinical edge up front, epitomized by talismanic man-mountain Hulk. The 35-year-old has been in sparkling form since his return to Brazil with 7 goals, 4 assists and 5 second-assists in 15 league appearances, plus another 7 goals and 3 assists in 10 Libertadores games.

Hulk drops deep to pick up the ball and makes a powerful surge towards the box, before playing a clever one-two with Nacho Fernandez to receive the ball on the edge of the area.
Hulk still has a lot to do as he is surrounded by orange shirts but displays his excellent close control, strength to hold off the challenge and composure to wait for the defender and goalkeeper to commit themselves before squeezing home from a tight angle.

Physicality and strength aside, what might come as a surprise is the fact Hulk is also in the top 3 for highest dribbles in both the Brasileirao and the Libertadores. The veteran goal-getter has shown himself to be a great focal point, able to bring others into play and pulling defenses out of position.

Hulk demonstrates his intelligence, selflessness and ability to create space for teammates as he draws the attention of the River defenders before perfectly cushioning a header into the path of the late-arriving Fernandez to sweep the ball into the net for a winner in the first leg of the quarter-final.

It will be fascinating to see how Diego Costa fits into the stacked forward line and the challenge will be to ensure Hulk’s effectiveness is not diminished. However, given the rigors of the marathon fixture list, having yet another striking option will be a welcome headache for Cuca.

For all Atletico’s impressive form, they have benefited from some good fortune along the way. Two questionable VAR decisions helped the Brazilians past an obdurate Boca side and there have been moments when they have been exposed by aerial balls too.

There is a still long way to go on their quest for glory and they now face familiar foes in the Libertadores semis in the form of reigning Copa champions Palmeiras.

Galo shouldn’t put all their eggs in one basket just yet but, given their barnstorming form and the addition of Costa, it would take a brave person to bet against Atletico right now.