Backed by a raucous away support, Atlético played in a style that Diego Simeone has become renowned for over the past decade. A defensive shut-out almost got the job done, with Pep Guardiola’s team only able to cut through once, in the second half, as substitute Phil Foden set up Kevin De Bruyne to slot beyond Jan Oblak in goal.
Los Colchoneros can feel fairly positive after this narrow defeat, taking a one-goal deficit back to Estadio Wanda Metropolitano ahead of next Wednesday’s return fixture. Looking back on the first 90 minutes of this 180-minute duel, here are three things we learned from the tactical battle between Simeone and Guardiola.
Cholo gonna Cholo
What did you expect?
Did you really think that Atlético Madrid would go all out attack at the Etihad?
This was a Diego Simeone special, almost executed to complete perfection.
In defence, Šime Vrsaljko and Renan Lodi played as deep full-backs alongside a back three of Stefan Savić, Felipe Monteiro and Reinildo Mandava. In front of them, João Félix and Antoine Griezmann dropped deep into a midfield three of Koke, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Marcos Llorente.
Manchester City fans and the English press were left frothing with rage at why a team would dare play in such a way. But it got Atlético a fairly-satisfying result with 90 minutes still left to play on home turf.
The display showed the value that Simeone brings as a coach. Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Gabriel Jesús, Bernardo Silva and company simply couldn’t find a way past a defence led by three players who couldn’t buy a start for Atleti earlier this season and a January transfer window signing for three million euros.
Atlético’s organisation and defensive solidity was well-drilled and all about a side well-prepared for what was to come.
While Man City face Liverpool at the weekend, Atleti play Mallorca, and Atleti fans may be hoping that Simeone will be able to not only keep his key players a little more fresh, but also get them drilled into the routines he will want to deploy against City in the second leg.
This was an intense tactical battle defined by the finest of margins, and the second leg is likely to be an even-more thrilling affair as the two master tacticians come head-to-head.
Atleti no longer need to be scared of Manchester City
Given all that, it was no surprise that City dominated. But they didn’t look dangerous. They managed only two shots on target, with one being De Bruyne’s goal and the other a 20-yard effort from the Belgian.
The goal itself was a superbly-executed move, City taking advantage of Atlético’s only momentary lapse. Reinildo stepped up and dived in, and in a single moment, Atleti were punished.
But they were not blown away or outwitted.
The most important thing Tuesday night was that Atlético rid themselves of any Manchester City fear. They proved they can keep the backdoor shut and stop City tearing them apart. They frustrated Guardiola’s side in their own backyard and stopped them from playing their own game.
“Atleti have many different ways of playing,” Guardiola had said in his pre-match press conference earlier this week. He knows the second leg will have a very different feel, and that Atleti will be heading into it with much more confidence and bravado than they had in Manchester.
“I’d invite anyone who thinks it’s easy to try and find space against that in training,” De Bruyne said after the game. It’s clear that Manchester City aren’t looking forward to doing it all over again next week.
And Atleti may well be relishing the chance to do so in front of their own fans.
Felipe CAN do a job
Injury to José Maria Giménez against Alavés meant that Cholo Simeone had some difficult choices to make.
Should he place Vrsaljko in the middle, with Llorente on the right? Or drop Kondogbia back? Or should he place his faith in Felipe, the man who has been calamitous almost all season long?
Of course, Simeone went for the latter. But we have to be fair with the veteran — he was superb.
Sitting in the heart of the defence, in the middle of the center-back trio, Felipe read the game brilliantly and responded to the challenge. Earlier on this season, he too often found himself venturing too far forward, then being exploited in behind or beaten easily by a quick forward. This time, he anticipated play well, reading De Bruyne’s passing and vision from deep to cut moves out. He finished with five interceptions.
Felipe was dominant against City, showing the kind of assurance that hasn’t been seen from him in around 18 months. Simeone has always backed his man, but this time the 32-year-old repaid his coach.
There is still a long way left to go this season, and Giménez could be sidelined for some time. If Felipe can re-establish himself in the heart of defence, he could well prove he has a role to play next season at Atlético, given his current contract expires in the summer.
The second tie against City could be a much-tougher challenge. If Atleti are more open, there will be more of an opportunity for opposition attackers to run at him and take on his weaknesses. But, albeit surrounded by protection, Felipe proved he can still contribute to Atlético Madrid this season.