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How should Atlético Madrid play?

The debate over Atleti’s style of play has reignited following the latest Champions League elimination. 

RB Leipzig v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Photo by Julian Finney - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

In the 2019/20 season, Liverpool played 56 matches and registered at least one shot on target in 55 of them. Want to know the only match where Jürgen Klopp’s men didn’t test the opposition goalkeeper once?

It was the Champions League first leg against Atlético Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano.

That 1-0 victory over the defending European champions set Los Rojiblancos up perfectly for the second leg at Anfield. There, they did suffer. There, they did give up 11 shots on target and they did have to rely on Jan Oblak to keep them in it. But, it was the perfect defensive approach of the home first leg that put the Spanish side in a position to win the tie through Marcos Llorente’s late magic.

We’ve seen this before. This formula, drawn on Diego Simeone’s chalkboard in permanent marker, has proven successful. However, following Thursday night’s 2-1 loss to RB Leipzig in the one-legged quarter-final in Lisbon, the debate over Atlético’s style of play has resumed. “They should be more attacking,” say some. “Simeone’s ways are outdated,” goes the argument.

Yet to consider Simeone and his 4-4-2 as outdated is to have a very short memory. It may feel like this apocalyptic 2020 has gone on forever, but it is only five months since the most Simeone-esque of victories over Liverpool. And it’s not just against the Premier League champions that this approach has worked for him in Europe.

An elite European record

Since the Argentine took over as coach in 2011, Atlético have had six Champions League ties with the first leg at home, and they’ve kept a clean sheet on all six occasions before going on to progress on four of these occasions — versus Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Leicester City and Liverpool. It has worked in the Europa League, too. When Atleti won that tournament in 2017/18, they played two ties en route to the final with the first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano. On both those occasions, against Lokomotiv Moscow and against Sporting CP, they won the first leg at home to nil and then confirmed their progress in the second leg.

Even when Atlético have had the first leg of a Champions League tie away from home, they’ve still done well defensively in the home second leg. They’ve progressed from six of the seven ties where they’ve had the second leg on their turf and have kept four clean sheets along the way.

In total, Los Colchoneros have played 13 two-legged knockout ties in the Champions League since Simeone took over, and they have won 10 of these. Of the 20 matches that made up these 10 ties, Atleti have recorded a mighty 10 clean sheets. That’s right. In half these victorious ties, played at the very highest level of continental football, Atleti have shut out their opponents. On average they’ve scored 1.40 goals per game and they’ve conceded 0.75 goals per game over these 20 matches. That has been the winning formula.

This year’s new format

How would a tie against RB Leipzig have gone down had it been played over two legs in normal circumstances? We’ll never know, and UEFA were right to make this a one-off game at a neutral venue given the unprecedented times we’re living through. But I firmly believe that Atlético would have overcome RB Leipzig over two legs.

RB Leipzig v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Photo by Julian Finney - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Their home advantage, at the Vicente Calderón before and at the Wanda Metropolitano now, is massive, something almost unrivaled across the continent. And their knack for massaging the away goals rule to their advantage is supreme. No matter if the first leg had been in Germany or in the Spanish capital, Simeone would have set his side up to not concede in the home game, and history has shown that there’s a good chance they’d have achieved this objective to put themselves in excellent position to win the tie.

When the usual Champions League format resumes following the pandemic, whether that’s next year or further into the future, there are few better methods to approaching a European tie than Simeone’s.

Attack? Or know your limitations?

Returning to this Friday’s outcry, there have been calls for Atlético to change their approach and to become more attacking. But what would that actually look like? And would it actually work?

If Atleti were to adopt a gung-ho approach, couldn’t it backfire? We saw this in the 2013/14 Copa del Rey semi-finals first leg against Real Madrid, when Atlético fell to a 3-0 loss after trying to play a much more expansive style of football. Afterwards, Simeone admitted that his side lost so heavily because they’d abandoned their style and tried to play Real Madrid at their own game.

Asked about this further by journalist Julio ‘Maldini’ Maldonado in a later interview for Movistar, Simeone explained the need to understand the limitations that Los Rojiblancos have. “Is being aware of your inferiority compared to an opponent key?” he was asked. Simeone responded:

“Understanding reality puts you in a better position. If you see that and take that on then you’ll be better. If you allow yourself to be carried along by the wave then you may confuse yourself. If we understand our weaknesses and play to our strengths then we’ll get closer to what we want.”

Rather than defeatism, this is realism. It seems that Simeone learned a lesson in that match, a cautionary tale. He isn’t naturally a defence-first coach, having drawn inspiration from César Luis Menotti and Marcelo Bielsa as he was coming through and having played offensive formations in the past — such as a 3-3-1-3 at River Plate or an attacking 4-3-1-2 at Catania. However, Simeone has come to understand that this protect-the-nest approach is the best way for Atlético Madrid to play. It’s the way the club has historically played and it’s the best way to make the most of the resources at his disposal.

Critics point to the money spent on João Félix and argue that Atlético do now have the resources to play an attack-first brand of football. Never mind the fact that Félix’s purchase was only possible and necessary because Antoine Griezmann departed, it’s simply not true that Atleti have the same resources as Europe’s very top clubs.

If looking at spending on wages, which has been proven to have a high correlation with winning, Atlético don’t even break Europe’s top 10 according to the latest data released by UEFA, available in the Club Licensing Benchmarking Report put out in January. Barcelona and Real Madrid, Atleti’s domestic rivals, are top with wage bills of €529m and €431m respectively. Atleti are all the way down in 11th with €212m, less than half.

If Atlético were to go toe-to-toe with Barcelona and Real Madrid by relying on their attacking talents to outperform their rivals’ stars then they’d get crushed like a can under a boot. Imagine, even, that they’d adopted such an approach against Liverpool in this year’s last 16. They’d surely have failed to keep a clean sheet in that first leg had they taken their foot off the brakes and stepped on the gas. They’d surely have gone out.

When David took on Goliath, he didn’t try to match the giant in a contest of strength. He had to adopt other tactics. A slingshot. He pulled back and fired with one opportune strike. Just like Atlético so often do.

The difference in the league

In knockout competition, the Simeone formula works. And when it doesn’t, a more attacking approach wouldn’t have necessarily been much better. Sometimes those budgetary gaps are just too large.

In LaLiga, though, I believe Atlético have to change. When they won the league title in 2013/14, Atlético created 44 shots from counter-attacking situations. The year before that, in Simeone’s first full season at the club, they’d managed 29. However, they’ve never again managed more than 14 since that year in which they won the league.

That sit-back-and-counter-attack slingshot-esque approach worked when opponents attacked Atlético. But once Atleti became Spanish champions and reached a Champions League final, opposition suddenly viewed Los Colchoneros as “a big team” and altered their game plans accordingly. Before 2014, a match against Atleti was viewed as a possible opportunity for three points. After 2014, opponents became more cautious and more nervous and began to sit back themselves. Suddenly, the onus was on Los Colchoneros to take the initiative. Suddenly, their counter-attacking approach was made invalid.

This might explain why Atlético have continued to come close in the Champions League while they’ve really struggled in LaLiga ever since their title win. In Europe, they’re often still the underdog and face top teams who will attack, meaning that Atlético can defend and counter. Domestically, though, this isn’t the case for 34 of their 38 league matches each season and their difficulties breaking down other sides’ stubborn defences costs them points.

This was clear to see in 2019/20, when Los Rojiblancos posted a club record 16 draws in LaLiga. They only lost four games, but dropped two points on too many occasions.

So, this is where Atlético’s style has to change and evolve. In LaLiga matches against inferior opposition, they need to be able to attack from the start and attack creatively. As Saúl Ñíguez pointed out on several occasions this past year, Atleti often wasted the first halves of matches by not playing ambitiously enough from the off.

Defending a 1-0 lead is in Atlético’s DNA, but conservative football only works if there’s something to conserve. In Europe, they have 180 minutes to score the one or two goals they need and, even if they don’t, there’s extra time and penalties to help them. Domestically, though, it’s 90 minutes to break down the defensive locks of a Real Valladolid or an Alavés. If not, then a LaLiga charge is impossible to maintain.

There’s a need for reflection at the Wanda Metropolitano this off-season, as there is every campaign. But to demand or expect a revolution is unrealistic. In Cholo, Atlético Madrid will continue to trust.