From a neutral perspective, no matter how much you might want to deny it, everyone enjoys the antics of Atlético Madrid in the Champions League. The La Liga outfit, who won the title last season and reached the final of Europe’s senior competition twice in 2014 and 2016, has developed a reputation as a team that is incredibly frustrating to play against. Implementing the dark arts of football and combining them with their defensive solidity to great effect both domestically and continentally.
It’s hard to put the finger on what exactly is the worst part of the Atlético gameplan — their persistent fouling and time-wasting, or its effectiveness. Diego Simeone has orchestrated some blood-boiling displays in recent years, especially against English opposition. The Wanda Metropolitano is like a bearpit when in full voice, and while Manchester City overcame the Rojiblancos tactics, Liverpool and Chelsea have fallen victim to the tie in the Champions League.
The offsides in soccer is a fundamental part of football that promotes fairness and influences both defensive as well offensive play by ensuring attackers don’t gain any unfair advantages over opposing defenders.
Despite collapsing in the semi-final against city rivals Real, the win for City genuinely felt like a turning point in their European shortcomings — something that has plagued Pep Guardiola’s tenure in England since his arrival. To perform so well and dominate possession against a side playing that negatively should have been a catalyst to go on and win the whole thing. To right the wrong of their loss to Chelsea in Portugal last year. Ultimately the campaign ended in capitulation but to come out of an encounter with Simeone’s side unscathed should have really been a benchmark for City. But it led many to wonder if Atlético went too far?
No, they didn’t. Atlético certainly walk the fine line between tough to beat and downright thugs, and while the images of Stefan Savić’s hairpulling on Jack Grealish is far from the advertisement of a European champion, the side was set up to do a job by their manager, and the Montenegrin had been efficient defensively throughout the two legs. When it comes to Atlético, though, it’s their reputation that often overshadows a good performance, and considering their underdog status in the football odds; the La Liga champions could have just as easily snatched a result on another day.
The current Atlético side has had to compensate for their lack of goals by taking that extra precaution defensively. While they struggled to create chances against City, you only need to look at Simeone’s side compared to Guardiola’s to see the contrast in styles. On a European night, you can have all the passion in the world, but if the game plan isn’t executed, then sides will punish you. And even when City took the lead in the first leg through Kevin De Bruyne, Atlético still had a foot in the tie and could have punished the Premier League outfit at any given moment.
While their dark arts have won the big games in the past, there were certainly moments in the tie that will be condemned. Phil Foden received his fair share of fouls throughout the two legs, and Guardiola was certainly frustrated with the display, much like Jürgen Klopp was earlier in the season.
“I don’t understand with the quality they have the football they play,” the German said. “They could play proper football, but they stand deep and have counter-attacks. It doesn’t feel right tonight.”
It will be interesting to see the signings that Atlético make next summer but expect them to set up exactly the same stylistically if they reach the latter stages of the competition.