MANCHESTER, England – After a while, feeling bored, cold and wet, Éderson decided to take a walk. The Manchester City goalkeeper spent 20 minutes obediently guarding his penalty area. He checked the danger in all four corners. He found nothing. He stared, squinting into the distance, searching for some threat on the horizon. Nothing here either.
And so, lazily, he wandered forward. He was completely alone. There was no one else in his half of the field. Manchester City’s central defenders, players who were employed as its good guards, have now been stationed deep in Atlético Madrid territory, in the types of positions usually occupied by midfielders ’elven strikers.
As he approached halfway, Ederson slowed his pace only slightly. He had the appearance of a man walking without a definite destination in mind: he didn’t really know what he was planning to do when he got there. He bounced on his heels. He reached out and touched his toes. He wandered for a few seconds, enjoying the feeling of being involved in a football game, then slowly made his way back, sadly regaining his lonely position.
The Brazilian’s silence could not – as can often be seen, during the domestic and European seasons – be followed in Manchester City’s enormous superiority over its opposition, its enormous financial power, its strength. Or, rather, it cannot be followed only on that. To some extent, Éderson was bored because Atlético Madrid was happy to be bored.
Perhaps the best indication of how Atlético coach Diego Simeone intended to reach the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals on Tuesday came in his first second. Manchester City had a kick-off, and at that point it seemed like every Atletico player had taken a step back, each retreating a little further into his own half.
Or it may have been that brief, fleeting, and perhaps accidental moment when the suspicious Geoffrey Kondogbia burst into half the City, looked up, and saw nothing in front of him except a few light blue jerseys and a wide green. His teammates didn’t even flinch. They were all locked in their pattern of holding, under the command to stay on their own.
Simeone, of course, wants just that. The Argentine is in many ways the polar opposite of Pep Guardiola, his colleague from City. It’s a cliché now, a kind of harsh judgment that seems too easy, but it’s true.
Guardiola’s vision of football is based on creating space out of nowhere. Simeone’s is focused, laser-sharp, on finding ways to make him evaporate. Guardiola built his legend on the creation of things. Simeone constructed his own to make sure they didn’t.
Guardiola said earlier that his ideal goal would be for each player to touch the ball, probably several times, before someone – no matter who – hits the goal without saving.
On Tuesday, Simeone seemed to be trying something different: chasing some crazy dream in which the whole game went on, and none of his players did something as hard as actually touching the ball, they were so preoccupied with the important job of closing the lanes and closing the corners of the attack.
Style is hard to love when it works, but it’s easy to admire. And it worked, and spectacularly, for a while. That perseverance, that determination, that defiance became the cornerstone of Atlético’s modern European identity, a key value that turned the eternal outsider into a true European power: winner of two Spanish and two Europa League titles, two Champions League finalists, now securely housed in his own to the spectacular and vaguely soulless superdome of the suburbs.
And here, too, it almost succeeded, against Guardiola’s latest masterpiece, a team that remains almost untouchable in the Premier League, a team that most likely ranks as the best in the world. Atlético almost completely suffocated Manchester City in the first half, and for much of the second half, in some old-fashioned Simeone play that earned Atletico the status of standard bearer of football counterculture, its ultimate resistance to the prevailing winds of pressure and possession.
It is almost significant though. Not only because City eventually broke through though, Phil Foden made his way past Atletico’s accumulated ranks, creating enough space for Kevin de Bruyne to win the match. That won’t keep Simeone unnecessarily. He would, privately, be pleased if he simply ran away from the Etihad with his side still in a draw.
No, much more important is what happened at the other end. There is one form of defense that Atlético, this Atlético, has not mastered, one aspect of his chosen art that still proves elusive: attack.
After all, the best defensive performance necessarily involves moments of threat. It is in those moments, these rare raids in the field, when the overburdened defense has time to recover, reorganize, regroup. And it is in those moments that doubt is sown in the opponent’s head, when even such a fine team as Manchester City begins to question itself, when it begins to wonder whether it should hire so many players ahead.
Simeone’s best Atlético teams had it: the pace of Antoine Griezmann, the cunning of the autumn David Villa, the Taurian warfare of Diego Costa. This Atlético team does not have. He failed to score in the first half. He had it, possibly, in another, although there is a great chance that it was conceived as a cross.
It is, after all, a flaw in the plan, a problem with finding pleasure in nothingness. The defense didn’t hold up, not really, and now Atlético have to win in Madrid next week, and to do that they have to open the spaces, not close them. It must create, not destroy. Simeone seemed quite happy that Ederson was bored. However, he was not nearly as happy as Guardiola.