Atletico Madrid antics are standard with Diego Simeone, even at a cost to themselves

City are through to the semis but their progress came with a significant mental and physical toll

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 14 April 2022 15:03
Comments
<p>Raheem Sterling clashes with Jan Oblak and Stefan Savic during a bad tempered Champions League quarter final in Madrid </p>

Raheem Sterling clashes with Jan Oblak and Stefan Savic during a bad tempered Champions League quarter final in Madrid

Leer en Español

“There is only one Atletico Madrid,” Pep Guardiola declared, in yet another comment from the Manchester City manager that could have been read either way.

That touches on how, under Diego Simeone, there will always be two sides to Atletico Madrid.

This was all articulated by a night at the Metropolitano that was both turgid and thrilling, where they took the greatest pride in one of the most grinding defeats.

It was a dichotomy that could be felt from the evening’s opening drumbeats.

As you walk into the Metropolitano, it is impossible not to be struck by the sheer energy of the place. It sometimes feels like the European ground that is closest to offering a South American atmosphere, and it is certainly rare among new stadiums in how it recreates the earthy feeling of the Vicente Calderon. The way the entire crowd comes together for their stirring “Atleti” anthem is intoxicating. Even Guardiola mentioned how there is nowhere like it in Europe.

It really set a tone, a sense that you were in for a big occasion of the type the Champions League should be about. The deafening whistling of the competition anthem only added a greater edge to it all.

And then what happened?

Those same fans were just as loud in booing the taking of the knee. For all the easy romanticism around Atletico, that should be harshly criticised. It also follows a Uefa punishment from the first leg where the club were given a €5,000 fine because of a small group of fans performing Nazi salutes.

The truth is that they have always been a club with a right-wing core, with some of that extending to extremism.

On the more frivolous side of the actual football, one of Simeone’s compatriots would call their ideology “right-wing football”. That was how 1978 World Cup-winning manager Cesar Menotti described Estudiantes’ infamous approach of the 1960s, and they were a hugely formative influence on Simeone.

It is exactly as you can imagine, because we saw so much of it on Wednesday night and throughout the last decade.

It is cynicism, it is anti-football. It is trying to stop play rather than just playing, aggressively defending rather than adventurously attacking, while using every piece of gamesmanship possible.

Simeone’s side set a tone with the first major moment of the match, Felipe’s deliberate collision with Phil Foden. When you do that – and especially when a defender isn’t booked – you can’t really complain about a player trying to get you back by exaggerating contact, as Foden did later on. The lines have been drawn.

It took the English playmaker a while to get into that kind of mood, though. Foden for a long time looked rattled, and off his game.

Zinchenko holds off Stefan Savic from an injured Phil Foden

That was clearly the point. That was the game plan. Atletico were going to unsettle City, so the game remained unresolved, until they could try and sting them by striking late on. The main question over that was whether Atletico could get the balance and timing right, but there was a clear logic to it.

City are a better team from being a much better-resourced club. If you try and play them at their game, you will likely be beaten, and maybe get beaten badly.

It is impossible to fault Simeone in that regard.

The question is over the extent of it all. Atletico may have been the less powerful club here, but they are no upstarts. Not any more. They have accrued all the riches from almost a decade in the Champions League, to become one of Europe’s super clubs. They only last year tried to set up a Super League. They have made Simeone by far the best-paid manager in the world, and are capable of paying over €100m for a talent like Joao Felix.

Yet this is what they produce? It was one shot on goal in the first 135 minutes of the tie.

That really isn't what football is supposed to be about. It isn’t “playing” by any definition of the word.

Again, it is not that Atletico do it against City. It is really how often they do it against so many other clubs. The argument this season has been that Simeone’s game is “actually more progressive”, but we are still talking about degrees of relativity. And Atletico are still a much wealthier club than 90 per cent of the teams they play.

It was another thought that struck a few minutes into the game. Atletico have so much money, and have 60,000 supporters coming to such a beautiful stadium… and this is what they serve up? Matches against clubs as limited as Levante are turned into attritional battles. It brought to mind Jorge Valdano’s famous quote about Liverpool-Chelsea in 2005.

“Football is made up of subjective feeling, of suggestion and, in that, [Atletico] is unbeatable,” to paraphrase the great man. “Put a s*** hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it's a work of art. It’s not: it’s a s*** hanging from a stick.”

There were so many moments when this second leg felt like this.

There are also increasing questions about how sustainable it all is. In a modern game of high pressing and high technique, Simeone increasingly cuts an isolated figure. That may not just be in the tactical landscape, where he is one of the few playing this sort of defensive game.

Simeone and City players after the heated fixture

There is talk of tension within the club.

Both sides are frustrated that the Argentine is so difficult to buy players for. He is too intent on particular types. Hence the high turnover of players in this team. There are stories of Simeone making snap decisions in dismissing new purchases after just a few training sessions.

Among them were former Celtic star Moussa Dembele. That should be no slight on the player, though. Simeone just wants a big number-nine as a striker for example, but the game doesn’t really produce them anymore. It has moved past them, which is another reason it is arguably moving past Simeone. That has seen the Atletico manager use a talent like Felix in a role that seems a waste of his talents. It is said to have also created a lot of tension between those two. There is little connection between manager and star.

And yet, for all that, the connection between the manager and the crowd remains as strong as ever.

This is what they’re served up? They can’t get enough of it. It only adds to the feeling of every match.

“We were starting to give our people what they wanted,” said Simeone, more attuned to his crowd than almost any other manager in history.

They were also starting to make it quite anxious for City, if quite painful, too. Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker went off with injuries. Foden was being targeted. Even Felix felled Joao Cancelo.

City were basically being brought down to size in so many senses. Atletico were ensuring Guardiola’s side did not assert their superiority as a team.

The big question is whether it also became so volatile that it ensured Atletico couldn’t actually assert their superiority on the night. Did their attempts to stop the other team winning become self-defeating? The last few minutes almost represent a football morality play.

There is no doubt that a high degree of chaos serves Atletico. It makes games unpredictable. It disrupts form. It stops better teams doing what they’re good at, as happened with so many City players.

“They pushed us a lot,” Guardiola said. “We forgot to play. We were in big, big trouble.”

Atletico, at last, were starting to create real chances. Simeone seemed to get the timing right. The stadium was crackling.

This might not have been the open football of the previous night at the Bernabeu, or the sort of Champions League epics that City are accustomed to, but it was thrillingly absorbing in its own way. There was a particular tension that only Atletico can create.

And then there was a spillover that only Atletico can be responsible for. With Simeone’s side in the ascendancy, and a depleted City defending on the ropes in a way we’ve rarely seen a Guardiola team do before, an equaliser looked like it could be coming. There was enough time. There was Luis Suarez causing havoc. The crowd was energised. The game seemed to be building up to a crescendo.

And then what happened this time? It was reduced to a brawl.

So close to a goal, Atletico themselves ensured that the ball spent a good five minutes down the other side of the pitch, with a man less, due to a melee that was a direct consequence of 180 minutes of that same chaos. Foden exaggerated contact, Jack Grealish hilariously got involved with Stefan Savic, and Felipe was sent off.

Felipe sees red in Madrid

The sparks had been set off. It was all so furious but also, finally, entertaining. This was the best part of Atletico’s approach. It is like enduring 180 minutes of bad football for penalties, except it’s thrilling animosity rather than spot kicks.

It just wasn’t necessarily best for Atletico themselves, at least in these circumstances. It was like they couldn’t escape their nature. They couldn’t help disrupting the opposition when this was actually precisely when they needed the game to flow.

They still created two huge chances, of course. The wonder is whether they could have created more if, for once, they just played.

And yet, inevitably, there was no sense of regret from the stands. There was only defiance, and deep pride about how they’d gone about their game. Simeone went from sarcastically applauding to lapping up the adulation with his players.

After the match, the Argentine was asked whether his team had “crossed a line”.

“In which occasion?” came the response.

That can again be read in two ways. Simeone was of course intimating they only did what he felt was necessary, meaning it was all justifiable. Another interpretation is that there were so many such occasions it was hard to say which.

It all added up to a night that was at once ugly and exactly what the sport is supposed to be about: tension, drama, personality, energy, a sense of unity.

It would also be a mistake to get too moralistic about this, or how a team plays. You only have to look at the opposition’s owners.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in