Atletico: Lessons From the Past

Revenge is sweet. Regardless of the competition.

Just as I wrote a word or two on how they’re coping with giants in La Liga – here we go, the wind of change just keeps on blowing. Atletico Madrid, the side that worked from the scratch for years to invent anti-Barcelona and anti-Real kryptonites, struck again. This time, there were no controversies whatsoever, no sending-offs, no nonsense the press would keep on talking about for weeks – it was all fair and square; even quite boring, to be honest. Real Madrid got outplayed. They had the ball, they had the initiative, they had pace, passing and technical ability – but all they got denied in that game, were scoring chances. Firing total number of only 10 shots with nearly 70% of ball possession – that just doesn’t happen in a normal game of football. If it does, something is seriously wrong. However, as it will be further explained in this post – against Diego Simeone’s side, things are out of any logical order quite frequently.

The blueprint was most likely set in 2010. The authors were Inter players with their ruthless manager, Jose Mourinho. The opponent in question: FC Barcelona, in the height of their powers: the team that was, by any normal means, basically unbeatable. Because of that fact, Mourinho started to look for abnormal ways to win. First of all, he discovered that having two players upfront with one of them frequently wandering to the wings puts the extra pressure on opposition’s centre-backs, who, in the absence of offensively committed wing-backs, had to often take on the Inter strikers one-on-one. He also realized that there’s no way to really challenge Barcelona’s advantage in ball retention: if they wanted to have it, they could because no other team in the world at the time had comparable passing and teamwork skills and Guardiola’s tactics of retrieving the possession immediately was too strong to oppose it.

Therefore, Inter turned to basics. Putting two tough, combative, defensive midfielders in front of their centre-backs, they’ve managed to successfully clog up the vulnerable area between 16 and 25 metres in front of their goal – the space that was a feasting ground of Barcelona’s attacking midfielders, Messi and Iniesta in particular. Then, they pretty much allowed Blaugrana to come and get them, knowing that with this kind of defensive organization, they can survive and hit the rivals on break. And so they did – in the first leg match, they’ve created more goalscoring chances than the Catalonian side, even though the pressure was seemingly all in Barça’s hands. And it was – not just seemingly, but factually – yet Inter was prepared to meet it even once it became almost unbearable – on Camp Nou. Eventually, it turned out to be a desperate effort because of Motta’s controversial red card; Inter kept going unfazed. They went through to the final, they’ve won it, Mourinho’s approach was later emulated by Roberto Di Matteo in another Champions League semi-final – and the kryptonite was almost ready.

Chelsea’s contain strategy worked; only to inspire the others.

Presumably, Diego Simeone was watching this all the time. Starting his managerial career in 2006, it took him only five years to climb up the ranks and earn a valuable spot on Atletico’s hot seat. Since then, he has made that seat considerably cooler – nobody in his right mind would want to get rid of a man who captured five trophies in three years of his spell on Vicente Calderon. He was going against all odds: financially speaking, Los Colchoneros were about four times poorer than Barcelona and five times poorer than Real Madrid the day he arrived – and, according to Forbes’ yearly rankings, that gap has widened ever since. Because of that, the management of the team was a bit improvised: their star striker, Falcao was partially tied by the third-party ownership and club’s total debt – inherited after the legendary, but borderline-crazy president Jesus Gil – exceeded 500 million Euros. Atletico finished 2011-12 league fifth, behind Valencia and Malaga; they crashed out of Copa del Rey against Segunda Division team Albacete. Not a good start.

Things would’ve been rather catastrophic if not for the Europa League. Already showcasing their trademark defensive stubbornness, Atletico conceded only 10 goals in 19 games of that competition, storming through qualifying rounds, the group stages and then, the knockout style phase. They also had the luck and pleasure of taking on and beating their domestic rivals: Valencia and Athletic Bilbao. Back then, Falcao was in a tremendous shape, scoring 36 goals in all competitions and carrying the team in the final third of the pitch. Fast-forward one year, Atletico has improved in all departments in comparison to 2011-12 campaign: they picked up 20 points more, netted 12 goals more and conceded 15 goals less. Then, one more Simeone’s season and one more leap forward: another 14 points more, another 12 goals more and 5 goals in their net less – enough to beat all La Liga rivals and capture the title, three points clear of Barcelona and Real Madrid!

Why Inter’s input against Barcelona was so important? Well, it’s because Los Colchoneros don’t do anything particularly different than Nerazzurri. Sitting deep on their own half, they happily concede possession and focus to keep the team shape, even at cost of lack of pressure on opponent’s midfielders. Because of the maximum coverage they provide to most dangerous zones in and outside their penalty box, the only way to really get through them is either through wing play and crosses, or by using the set-pieces – since the team generally commits a lot of fouls. Yesterday, Real Madrid tried both. They’ve almost scored in the first seconds thanks to CL final hero Sergio Ramos. Then, decent chances for headed attempts came to Khedira and Bale, who both missed their opportunities. Especially Bale was underwhelming. This was his chance – without Ronaldo on the pitch and with rumours circulating the press that team blames him for a defeat in Valencia, the former Spurs star needed to redeem himself. But he didn’t. Instead, his 100-million wonder position was further undermined.

Still struggling: most of Bale’s runs were stopped cold by Atletico.

That being said, Real was also scared of offensive commitment – and understandably so. After all, just thirteen minutes into the game, Atletico players scared them to death by launching a lightning-fast counter that started with Bale’s offside goal being disallowed. For no longer than a second, Los Blancos stood there, confused – and, before they knew it, before I could even raise my eyelids after blinking, Griezmann was running at visitors’ goal with only Marcelo and Arbeloa tracking back – and right-back Gamez, arriving to help the Frenchman! They did not score – for now – but it was a warning sign that any overextension by Champions Cup holders might be swiftly punished. Because of that, Real had to do this with Isco and James Rodriguez not having too much of wing support – and, try as hard as they might – they couldn’t cut the defence open for anyone to score. Ancelotti’s idea to keep Kroos deep in the midfield and push Khedira into fulfilling more attacking role didn’t help either.

Yesterday, Diego Simeone went mental – and for some very good reasons.

Just as things seemed to be heading towards a goalless draw, the game-decider came from Sergio Ramos. This time, however, it wasn’t a stroke of brilliance – rather a stroke of stupidity. With a long ball from a throw-in arriving in Real box, he had the situation all in control; two of his teammates were covering all possible dangers that could come from that throw. And yet, at that very moment, Ramos has decided to practice judo. Brought down by him, Mario Suarez had no choice but to fall down and that was it. There’s not even not much point at discussing the rest: Atletico rarely screws up the penalties and if they’re good at something, it’s protecting the 1-0 lead – especially since the lesson in the last Champions League final taught them to stay focused until it’s over. Soon, they’ve shown how corner headers are done and the game was sealed in their favour. The kryptonite worked once again. Can it melt down Barcelona later this week?

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