The principle of Chekov’s gun goes like this: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
Diego Simeone’s own version of Chekov’s gun first appeared against Levante last Wednesday. This week, against Manchester United, he pulled the trigger.
Cholo, who has been trying to figure out a working system for his Atlético Madrid side all season, foreshadowed the tactical blueprint used in the Champions League during that deflating visit from Levante. Granted, on that occasion, Atlético were beaten by the worst team in LaLiga and the manager’s job was called into question.
But with a few tweaks and a change of personnel, some forced and others not, Cholo was able to unveil a new and improved version on Wednesday night versus better opposition.
The difference in intensity and general astuteness were evident for Atlético, but their tactics that gave them the platform to put in the best performance of the season. If not for a late defensive hiccup, this would have been a season-changing game. It still might be.
The example of Simeone’s new plan below is from the 1-0 loss to Levante. The central idea was to squeeze the middle and have Thomas Lemar and Rodrigo De Paul, the two wide midfielders, shuttle left and right to close the ball-carrier when it went out wide. But Atlético’s disjointed pressure and gaps in midfield were easily exploited, even by a team struggling as badly as the league’s bottom side.
As you can see, Atlético were stretched in attack, couldn’t shift quickly enough in midfield and ended up being dragged all around the Wanda Metropolitano on a merry dance by a severely-limited Levante side.
On Wednesday night in the Champions League, Simeone started with a more-agile midfield in Geoffrey Kondogbia and Héctor Herrera. Renan Lodi and Marcos Llorente, both energetic players with experience playing as defenders and with the ball at their feet, played on the left and right of midfield.
Ángel Correa and João Félix combined well with Kondogbia and Herrera to cut off any passing lanes for United through the middle. They directed traffic to the wings where Lodi and Llorente were there to pick up the pressing.
We can see from Atlético’s average positions how they played. It was lop-sided at times, but with Lodi and Llorente out wide and with the middle chock-a-block, it was harder for United to make progress. Simeone also counted on Cristiano Ronaldo not making the runs necessary to get free as he waited and moaned, mostly, about the ball not coming to him.
The absence of some of his starters helped Simeone see the actuality of the situation. Koke has been poor this season, he looks tired and can’t cover enough ground to justify a starting position in midfield anymore. Yannick Carrasco has arguably been Atlético’s most consistent threat in attack this season, but the Belgian doesn’t offer enough defensively. The reason Carrasco has been so important is because Atlético have devolved into a team of individuals and where single moments define their games.
Placing Lodi on the left wing freed Félix up to play a more-central position, removing the Portuguese’s shackles without losing structural integrity. The 22-year-old gave Harry Maguire a torrid time on his goal and can be seen keeping a close eye on Raphaël Varane in the clip below.
Cholo has been criticised this season for Atlético’s total failure to defend their LaLiga title. But on Wednesday night, he proved he still has what it takes on big European nights to make the biggest teams sweat. And the players proved they can put together at least 75 minutes of coherent football.
It’s not perfect, but it’s progress. It looked like a plan coming together, which bodes well for Atlético’s undeniably-talented squad as they gear up for a huge second leg at Old Trafford and a showdown for a top-four place in LaLiga.