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Diego Simeone’s tactics not the problem against Real Madrid

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The Argentine’s players must shoulder the blame for an embarrassing first leg defeat.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid’s 2016-17 Champions League obituary is 99.8% done. It’s just chilling in SB Nation’s Chorus editor as a draft, awaiting a final grammar and style check before Cristiano Ronaldo and his throwback frosted tips can press “Confirm Publish.” When that happens, as is expected next Wednesday, Atlético will have completed its transition into football’s version of the Buffalo Bills, the game’s eternal bridesmaids, this generation’s great “nearly men.”

Right now, I don’t intend to address the big picture questions which sprung up in the wake of Atlético’s shocking, skull-crushing 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid on Tuesday. That analysis and dissection of Atleti’s future is for another time. For now, let’s focus on what happened at the Santiago Bernabéu and the criticism that has been levied at Diego Simeone for his philosophy and team selection.

What happened on Tuesday night was a total evisceration. It was a slaughter, a neutering of the infamous, battle-tested Atlético dogs of war. Real Madrid offered a stunning repudiation of Cholismo in a complete dismantling of the Atleti way. Simeone’s men recorded just four shots and were powerless to stop an inspired Ronaldo, who put in a shift reminiscent of his very best days and the pre-Simeone derbis (and with only one goal that may have been offside).

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

In short: it was an utter humiliation. But in hindsight, Simeone couldn’t have done much tactically to prevent it.

Cholo - as he should have - placed an emphasis on a larger strategy of taking an away goal back to the Vicente Calderón. Cholo - as he should have - started his three top scorers in Antoine Griezmann, Kévin Gameiro and Yannick Carrasco. Cholo - as he should have - went with Lucas Hernández in an inherent roll of the dice with no available right backs.

The Argentine’s larger strategy failed, but not because it was doomed to fail. His players, by and large, were absolutely awful. Abject, soulless performances littered a squad revered for putting everything on the line on the biggest nights. It is telling that Atlético’s most common pass combination was Gabi to Koke; a lack of ambition, charisma and personality from Atlético’s most important players came to define this heavy defeat.

Kévin Gameiro was dreadful, with one tame attempt at rounding Keylor Navas all that he had to show for his outing. Antoine Griezmann did his reputation as a big-game bottler no favors, and his passing chart serves as a pretty good summary of his night. Just look at all the backwards or sideways passes:

Courtesy of FourFourTwo.

Saúl Ñíguez, ever the man for the big occasion, picked up a silly booking and was otherwise invisible over his 56 minutes. By trying to be everywhere and do everything, Koke in effect did nothing. Filipe Luís, Atlético’s most consistent player this season, could not create anything down the left-hand side on a night where his crossing and dribbling prowess were needed more than ever. Lucas tried, but Marcelo and Ronaldo cooked him several times.

And yet, for a good 25-minute-or-so chunk of Tuesday’s match, Atlético defended very well, even without a true right back or the versatile José Giménez. Led by Gabi and Diego Godín, the structure and organization were top-notch for most of the second half. This reduced Real Madrid to sideways passes and no clear shots at Jan Oblak; Simeone’s system worked in spite of the players in it. But the air went out of Atleti’s tires when Ronaldo bagged his brace following failed clearances from Filipe and Godín and a missed block from Stefan Savić.

We also can’t ignore that Real Madrid are simply better. Zinedine Zidane has more talent, more options, more solutions. The later the Champions League goes, the more evident it becomes when there is a heavy talent disparity. Atlético may have a great coach and a stable of good players, but Madrid have a collection of great players who don’t need a tactical mastermind monitoring their every move. That’s a part of this, too.

That said, there is no excuse whatsoever for the gutless 90 minutes Atleti played out at the Bernabéu. It has left Simeone with many more questions than readily-available answers ahead of next Wednesday’s return leg. Los colchoneros need a miracle, but based on the way they played Tuesday, they won’t come close to getting one.