MANCHESTER, UK – Feeling bored, cold and wet after a while, Éderson decided to go for a walk. The Manchester City goalkeeper kept watch in the penalty area for 20 minutes. He had checked all four corners for danger. Didn’t find anything. He squinted into the distance to see if there was a threat on the horizon. There is nothing there either.
And so, lazily, he walked forward. He was completely alone. There was no one else in half the space. Manchester City’s central defenders, the players employed as its valiant sentries, were now in the depths of the Atlético Madrid area in the kind of positions more customarily occupied by elfin attacking midfielders.
As he approached the center line, Éderson slowed his pace a little. He had the air of a man walking without a specific goal in mind: He didn’t really know what he was planning to do when he got there. He jumped on his heels. He reached out and touched his toes. He lingered for a few seconds, feeling what it was like to attend a football game, and then slowly turned back, ruefully returning to his solitary task.
The Brazilian’s boredom – as it often does during both the domestic and European seasons – cannot be attributed to Manchester City’s overwhelming superiority over their rivals, its immense financial strength, its overpowering strength. Or rather, it simply cannot be based on it. To some extent, Éderson was bored because Atletico Madrid were content with him being bored.
Perhaps the best indication of how Atletico coach Diego Simeone plans to approach Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League quarter-finals comes in the first second. Manchester City took the kick-off and at that moment every Atlético player seemed to be taking a step back, each man advancing a little further into their own half.
Or maybe that short, fleeting, and possibly coincidental eerie Geoffrey swooped halfway through Kondogbia City, looked up and saw nothing but a few light blue jerseys and a wide field of green in front of him. His teammates weren’t shaking too much. All were locked in their holdings, under orders to stay in their places.
Of course, this is exactly what Simeone wants. The Argentine is in many ways the opposite of his City counterpart, Pep Guardiola. It’s a cliché, now, the kind of glib judgment that feels so easy, but it’s true.
Guardiola’s vision of football is based on the sudden emergence of space. Simeone is focused on finding ways to vaporize it with laser sharpness. Guardiola built his legend on something happening. Simeone built on making sure they didn’t.
Guardiola has previously said that his ideal goal would include touching the ball, probably more than once, before someone – no matter who it is – hits an unprotected goal.
On Tuesday, Simeone seemed to be trying something different: chasing a crazy dream in which an entire game has passed without any player doing anything as cool as touching the ball, they’ve become so consumed by the important job of closing crossing lanes. and closing angles of attack.
Style is hard to love when it works but easy to admire. And it’s worked for a while, and it’s worked splendidly. This perseverance, this determination, this challenge has become the cornerstone of Atletico’s modern European identity. a perpetual oppressed to a real European power: two Spanish titles and two Europa League winners, a two-time Champions League finalist, now safely settled in his own gorgeous and vaguely soulless suburban superdome.
And here it almost worked against Guardiola’s latest masterpiece, a team that is virtually untouchable in the Premier League, a team that is most likely among the best in the world. Atlético smothered Manchester City almost entirely in the first half and in the second half with a sort of old-fashioned Simeone show that gave Atlético the status of the standard bearer of football’s counterculture, the last stand against the prevailing wind. pressing and possession.
Almost as important though. Not only did City eventually choose his way, but Phil Foden crossed Atletico’s crowded ranks, creating enough room for Kevin de Bruyne to win the game. This does not detain Simeone unnecessarily. He would have been particularly pleased to have escaped the Etihad while his side was still in a tie.
No, much more important is what happens at the other extreme. Atlético has one form of defense that this Atlético has failed to master, one aspect of his chosen art that is elusive: attack.
After all, the best defensive performances always involve moments of threat. Those moments when an overworked defense has time to bounce back, reorganize and regroup, are those moments that rarely make it onto the field. And in those moments, when even a team as good as Manchester City starts second guessing themselves, doubts are planted in the opposition’s minds when they start wondering if they’re going to get that many players. Further.
Simeone’s best Atletico teams had it: Antoine Griezmann’s speed, David Villa’s cunning in the fall, Diego Costa’s taurine combat. This Atlético team is not like that. He did not shoot on goal in the first half. Probably the latter had one, but it’s very likely to mean a cross.
Ultimately that is the flaw in the plan, the problem of finding satisfaction in nothingness. The defense didn’t work, not quite and now Atlético must win in Madrid next week and to do that they have to close the gaps. Instead of destroying, it has to create. It seems that Simeone was quite happy, Éderson was bored. Still, he was not as happy as Guardiola.