Champions League: Diego Simeone’s tactic fails against Manchester City as defence-first becomes defense-only
MANCHESTER — Only Diego Simeone knows if he really believed his approach could work. Was Atletico Madrid’s only chance of getting anything against Manchester City by giving up all ambition, waiting for a mistake that may never come and hoping that a back line that isn’t what she was could cling?
In the end, it is not. The defending La Liga champions were lucky to escape the Etihad Stadium trailing only on Kevin De Bruyne’s 70th-minute goal after a game in which they offered almost nothing beyond the small area in front of their box. Simeone has used these tactics to infuriate Pep Guardiola in the past, knocking out Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals six years ago, but lightning tends not to strike the same person twice.
Generally, if you allow an opponent to have 302 touches in your final third when you register 260 less, if you lose the shooting battle 15-0 and go several minutes without even touching the ball, you are not going to not get a smash-and-win 1-0. Indeed, you should probably take your 1-0 loss and be thankful for it. If there was a brief moment when it looked like City’s neuroses in this competition might get the better of them, it faded into insignificance in the face of those long spells where it was obvious Atleti couldn’t just sit and wait for something to happen.
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Fresh legs and a fresh mind proved enough to get City over the line. The introduction of Phil Foden gave Guardiola the one thing he was missing as his side whittled away their opposition. Someone who could beat the two or three defenders Simeone regularly sends swarms at any striker. He did it with a quick dart and a slide rule pass, freeing Kevin De Bruyne behind to fizzle a shot over Jan Oblak, taking the hosts ahead in the draw. Simeone may well believe that his team are still in it, going home with just one goal, but he will also know how much harder it will be at the Wanda Metropolitana, where they will have to knock football on goal. a little more often (i.e. not at all) if they want to win the evening and tie.
He could well use the favors of a City side who looked firmly on the pace tonight despite never hitting the top gear. There was not to be a big galactic mastermind moment from Pep Guardiola. Nathan Ake might not have been the orthodox choice at full-back with Oleksandr Zinchenko on the bench, but his tendency to form a back three, albeit a camp on the edge of the attacking third, freed up Joao Cancelo to travel wherever the mood took him. It could be anywhere from the signature to the number 10 position, sometimes in the same motion.
For the first time since the FA Cup third round victory over Swindon Town, there was no place in the starting XI for Jack Grealish or Phil Foden, although it quickly became apparent why the latter would not be. not obliged to play as a central striker. on the shoulders of the Atletico Madrid defence. Try to burst in behind and an attacker would only be yards from Jan Oblak’s goal line. Better have Bernardo Silva come to the ball like a real fake nine.
Indeed, Atletico presented their stand in a way that is no different to a Ligue 2 side in the early rounds of the FA Cup. A bank of five shielded the other, with the space City could thrive in becoming a trash compactor, fitting for a first half that at its conclusion smelled of adjacent trash.
There is a tendency to seek higher meaning in such a boring tariff. This must be one of those Diego Simeone masterclasses. And maybe it was, but to be a really effective defensive display, surely there has to be the threat that something, anything, might come at the other end? For too much of this game, Atletico didn’t seem like a threat to enter Third City, let alone test Ederson. It’s the inevitable reality of starting your attacks at the edge of your own penalty area.
You could feel how tired Atletico were in their flurry of counterattacks at the start of the first half. Antoine Griezmann appeared to age from 21 to 31 during a break, Marcos Llorente’s shot was so tame it looks like Opta registered it as an incomplete pass. In the end, a team that had Griezmann, Joao Felix, Angel Correa, Matheus Cunha, Rodrigo De Paul and Thomas Lemar on the pitch finished the game with 0.00 expected goals, 0.00 shots and just about as many. touches in the final third that Riyad Mahrez managed in 68 min.
Meanwhile, Cancelo’s sparkling crosses were nervously hacked. Raheem Sterling nearly turned a shot from Ilkay Gundogan, Jan Oblak almost scrambled a free kick from De Bruyne to put it to safety. Half a dozen calls for sanctions left Istvan Kovacs indifferent; if none of them were a stone wall that escaped the radar, it’s also true that another referee could have given more than one. And there were three potential game changers waiting in the wings.
The dyke was only going to hold for so long. Foden brought a sparkle to the contest, a commitment to drive the Atletico defence, forcing them onto the pitch to try and slow his advances. Simeone’s men were still back in numbers, but when Foden could beat three it didn’t really matter. A dart, a ball deep on a plate for Kevin De Bruyne and 70 minutes of conservatism was wasted (unless you believe all this team could hope for was to lose by a narrow margin).
Maybe there were more. Foden continued to probe menacingly around the inside right channel. Atletico, meanwhile, fell into bad habits, subjecting Grealish to the harshest house of treatment in the closing stages. He and his teammates should probably expect more of that next week in Madrid, where Atletico simply can’t replicate that remarkably passive performance. If they do, they’ll have the chance to escape with the same score as Tuesday night.