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Diego Simeone’s pragmatism does not waver in Atlético’s defeat to Chelsea

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On Cholo, his tactics versus Chelsea, and why so many football watchers equate “practical” with “cowardly.”

Atletico Madrid v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Leg One Photo by Cristi Preda/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Atlético Madrid have to climb out of another Champions League hole next month.

Atlético will go to Stamford Bridge on March 17 — not, per UEFA directive, Bucharest’s National Arena or some other neutral ground — to overturn a 1-0 first leg deficit against Chelsea. Olivier Giroud’s 68th minute overhead kick on Tuesday settled a tight, tactical encounter in Romania, where Thomas Tuchel’s Blues survived early shakiness and were good value for the result.

It was a strange 90 minutes, a game which saw one of LaLiga’s most prolific teams fail to register a single shot on target against a jittery Édouard Mendy and a defense without bedrock Thiago Silva. Diego Simeone named a nominally-attacking 11, inserting all of Ángel Correa, João Félix, Thomas Lemar, Marcos Llorente, and Luis Suárez. But with neither Yannick Carrasco (muscle injury) nor Kieran Trippier (suspended by the English FA) available, Simeone stuck Lemar and Llorente into makeshift wingback roles and had his men drop into a 6-3-1 formation.

The objective was clear — keep a clean sheet for the first time in over five weeks and take a goalless tie to London, where one away goal would be enough to secure progression. Of course, Giroud had other ideas. But Simeone’s conscious decision not to have his weakened team match Chelsea blow-for-blow was classic, unadulterated Cholismo, and the coach was surprised at the reaction to his setup.

Atletico Madrid v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Leg One Photo by Stefan Constantin/MB Media/Getty Images

Simeone’s Atlético often play defensively in Champions League knockout ties anyway, a response to the strength of many opponents and a ploy to extract the most from the archaic away goals rule. For Tuesday’s game, Cholo understood that building up through possession without Trippier and Carrasco would produce ball losses and numerical disadvantages upon which Tuchel’s Chelsea would feast. Even with all the ball, Timo Werner was still able to scamper away and blaze past Atleti defenders on a couple occasions. Letting Chelsea — with its depth and team speed — break against an underperforming defense was a recipe for a multi-goal loss, an unpalatable alternative.

As if by design, the game was dreadful to watch. Félix was anonymous without the ball, and Suárez was isolated as his teammates ventured forward only rarely. The Uruguayan still finished with two key passes, and in the first half Lemar almost got to the back post to tap in a ball Suárez sent fizzing across the box. Atlético’s best chance wasn’t even really a chance — Saúl picked Mendy’s pocket in the opening moments and had an easy tap-in if his touch hadn’t let him down.

Atletico Madrid v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Leg One Photo by Stefan Constantin/MB Media/Getty Images

On the whole, it can be said that Atlético did not play to win and the corresponding result followed. Simeone can be faulted for lacking ambition and adventure of any kind given the quality of his side’s performances in LaLiga, where Villarreal await on Sunday. That said, a vulnerable Atleti still produced its most defensively-committed performance in weeks against a deep, balanced Chelsea team that now appears competently-coached. Felipe and Stefan Savić played especially well, and Lemar stood out in a wingback role he undoubtedly hated. And though the rojiblancos lost the match, they’re still in the tie thanks to a solid defensive effort and their coach’s practicality.

That quality is central to how Simeone views football. He doesn’t care one bit if you like it. He’d like you to respect it, as he respect others’ opinions, but that doesn’t keep him up at night.

Football fans on social media wish it did.


John Cassavetes’ great film “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” centers on strip club owner Cosmo Vittelli and a debt he owes the mob. In one of the film’s final scenes, Vittelli (played by the late Ben Gazzarra) speaks with his employees about the nature of his business — and by extension, their livelihoods.

“Well, look...look at me, right? I’m only happy when I’m angry. When I’m sad. When I can play the fool. When I can be what people want me to be rather than be myself.”

Strictly speaking, Vittelli doesn’t view the women he employs as strippers. He is appreciative of their work, of course, as it keeps him in business. But he has respect for them beyond it. Yet, when night falls, Vittelli finds his groove as a gregarious impresario. He sees a responsibility in being the boisterous emcee, though the viewer knows his inward sensitivities belie this outward bluster.

This brings me to social media, its presenters, its engagement junkies. This brings me to how these forces as we know them coalesce to preach, to condemn, to harvest retweets and detail expands on Twitter. Usually, this takes place in tandem with a willful rejection of nuance, or context, or crucial background detail.

People listen when Joe Cole gets on English television and mispronounces the name of Barcelona’s world-famous academy before shredding a league whose current top four have dominated European competition for a decade. It should go without saying that those comments go beyond “having a laugh with the lads at the sports desk” — they’re cretinous, and they’re harmful.

But people also follow along when Giant Account with 10,000-plus Followers bleats about Simeone’s purported cowardice, or makes a crack about Félix’s contract, or slams Atlético’s style with loaded terms like “insipid” or even “a disgrace to the sport” — naturally, failing to point out part of the surprise in Bucharest was that the team’s play was an exception rather than a rule to the balance of this season’s performances.

Social media has a tremendous power to inform, to foster discovery, to build something lasting. Hell, I met my best friend through Twitter. Bantering is easy. Getting jokes off is easy. Staying away from poisoning intelligent discourse is hard, though, when fans and analysts hop on in ignorance and gleefully dismiss context — like, I don’t know, Spain’s first-place team being unable to play the football it wants to play largely due to the absences of its first-choice wingbacks. Maybe being forced to play in Romania because UEFA couldn’t — wouldn’t — work with Spanish authorities on travel restrictions played a role, too.

Gray areas like these are crucial to the discourse, but it must be more satisfying to wave them away with a keyboard and a blue “Tweet” or “Post” button.

It’s important to ask questions when we encounter something we don’t understand. It’s important to maintain dignity, and integrity where others lack it. It’s important not to bend to the narrative for clicks. Through a football match’s brilliant, gleaming prism, lessons emerge that can be extrapolated onto better practices just for making it through each day.