With successful victories over the Champions FC Barcelona and the German juggernauts and second favourites FC Bayern Munchen, Atletico Madrid have once again found themselves on the brink of a “fairytale”. The general public seem to thrive off an underdog story and A. Madrid’s manager Diego Simeone, is fantastic at producing real passionate moments which are absolutely infectious. The jubilant general audience seeing these giants slain by their metaphorical David, would convince any layman that this result was the shock of the season. But let us back up a bit; in examining a few things about their results as well as the tactics involved, purists wouldn’t find much to rejoice about. In no way are we all expected to be accepting of a idealistic perception of how the game should be played nor should “negative” tactics be praised however the type of shock and excitement displayed by the general public may be a bit unfounded.
After their repeat of 2014 and pushing Barcelona out of the competition, Atletico Madrid became notable for the rigid defensive shape, sharp attacking transitions and passion all brimming from their manager Simeone. As we saw in their Semi Final game and even in their league campaign, they hardly allow a sniff at their goal with compactness and commitment being their guide while defending. The style implemented is quite familiar to all and even frowned upon by most. To some it’s simply parking the bus while to others it’s a type of counter attacking game, and it’s most effective against possession hogs such as Bayern and Barcelona especially with their teams being built around working and moving well in spaces. When that space is restricted, you have the dilemma of them failing to create any real openings. While it may be ugly and boring to most it does display the level of concentration necessary to execute it consistently with the desired result being ascertained. Although at the end of the day Atletico did lose the game in Germany and gave away a penalty, they still were able to effectively hold out through collective defensive effort.
What also adds to the fairytale feeling of it all is the unfamiliarity most would have with the club over the last decade or so. While most would recognise the plethora of world class forwards to have played for the club, most fans find it difficult to watch La Liga outside of the attractive top two. Unless people have been keeping tabs on them, their details about their style and effectiveness would have gone unnoticed to most. With one of the best defensive records in the top 5 leagues and the least number goals conceded in La Liga, it should come as no surprise that their defences are hard to breakdown. As a matter of fact, their defeat of Barcelona is a case of third time’s the charm as despite their rigidity and compactness, they still lost out to the Catalans in the league, albeit by narrow margins. With the correct adjustments and commitment they were able to hold out against FCB and took the tie. Continuing on the theme of stern defence, they’ve been the best defensive team in the league, in terms of goal concession, in 3 out of the last 4 seasons. This was especially evident in their title win in the 2013/2014 season and continues to be the cornerstone on which they look to build their dynasty.
What Simeone has done over the last 5 years is admirable. Looking back at the implementation of parking the bus, or at least a partial counter attacking game, brandishing him a genius for employing these tactics is really an exaggeration. These tactics have bested multiple top teams on many occasions. Jose Mourinho with Inter Milan and on different occasions with Real Madrid and most notably Roberto Di Matteo, who few would consider a genius, won the champion’s league, beating then champions, Barcelona in the semi final, using these same tactics to do so. As a matter of fact even Arsenal on many occasions have found themselves on the receiving end of a loss to Premier League minnows due to this tactic, whether it be a counter attacking display or simply parking the bus while looking for chances to break. It is probably the most effective go-to set up in football, demanding focus, compactness and determination from the unit. Where the praise for Simeone comes in is the level of intensity and focus exhibited by his group to know when to pick their moments, holding their shape and focus even in situations of desperate defending and the intensity to keep it up for 90mins. In the 2014 UCL Final we saw where his team’s intensity dropped in extra time, after a momentary lapse in the dying minutes cost them a historic double. Simeone seemingly has done what’s necessary to stem that with the level of player turnover in the squad and the injection of youth.
Ultimately, what Simeone has done is build his team from the back with a strong defensive foundation and used age old tactics as the cornerstone of his team’s approach. Adding to that, he utilises his passion and spirit to inspire, especially young players into being fully committed and focussed on the cause. What he has done is hardly anything that we won’t see again and is something we’ve seen win titles throughout the years but what can be said is that with Simeone’s establishment of this foundation he has allowed Atletico to begin building what could be seen as a revolution in La Liga and also place himself among top managers of the coming generation.