Atletico madrid spanish football

Keeping Matches Ugly Is Just How Atletico Madrid Likes It

By James Simpson - @JamesSimpsonII

If there are any sports fans looking to start investing your time in soccer, then just wonderful. I highly endorse checking out European clubs like Barcelona and the great Lionel Messi, Pep Guardiola’s talented Manchester City bunch, Real Madrid and their group of stars, Liverpool and their frenetic pace of play led by the front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, and the exciting pairing of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe at PSG.  

However, one would plead to you to stay far away from watching Spanish club Atletico Madrid play. It’s in your best interest to turn away because watching those dudes play soccer will easily persuade you to never flip to another match on TV ever again.

Since taking over as manager at Atletico Madrid in 2011, Diego Simeone has employed a rigid style of play that is hard on the viewer’s eyes. For years now, Atletico Madrid has been embodied by their disruption on the defensive side of the ball, which has led to the most successful period in club history. Their 4-4-2 formation (four defensive backs, four midfielders, two forwards) has been a nightmare for opponents to crack over the years because of how they keep their lines compact, compressed and well-organized – much to Simeone’s liking.

Under Simeone’s guidance, Atletico turned into the nastiest, most rugged and meanest side in all of Europe. That play led to collecting one La Liga title (2014), two Champions League final appearances (2014, 2016), two Europa League titles (2012, 2018), one Copa del Rey trophy (2013), one Spanish Super Cup (2014) and being looked upon as a club on par with the mighty powers, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The problem with Simeone’s approach is that his club plays too defensively. Everything they do is based on a primarily defensive gameplan, with no need whatsoever on focusing on controlling the midfield or flourishing on the attacking side. It’s defense all day, every day for Atletico Madrid and quite frankly it’s not a fan favorite among die-hard football fans.

They thrive on winning ugly and mucking matches up. Winning 1-0, settling for a draw or keeping a clean sheet is just as appealing to them as winning a contest 3-1 or 5-0. They have no interest in getting forward. Atletico’s strategy is to sit back deep in the defensive third the entire match and dare their opposition to take their best shot. If there was ever a European side that reveled in playing “conservative football” to the highest order and not giving a damn about fans pleasure experience, then it’s Atletico Madrid.  

Their manager is very aware of how critics view his club and is unapologetic about the form of football he preaches to his players. “Football’s wonderful because there are so many different styles and opinions; it’s like religion or politics,” Simeone told ESPN before facing Monaco in a Champions League group stage match back in November. “Everyone talks about it, everyone has an opinion, everyone judges. I am very respectful of all systems, all ways of playing. Sometimes people are not respectful of our style and our way."

“We’re the only team in Spain that plays like this. That’s our strength and we have earned a reputation as a team that’s annoying,” said one of Atletico’s two best players in forward, Antoine Griezmann. “At first as a striker, it seems boring but then you see the results.”

There’s nothing creative or entertaining about watching 'Atleti' play and because of that, it limits opportunities to score goals. When it comes to the attacking aspect of football, they don’t excel in any department or even make much of an effort at it.

Controlling possession? Nah, they rather concede possession. Making precise high or low crosses into the penalty box? Nope. A threat in the open field on the break? Please. Having players that can beat defenders one-on-one other than Griezmann? Not at all. Being an instinctive passing club - flourishing into the final third with one-twos, link-up play, triangle passing and making cuts on the far and near posts? Forget about it. The only ways Atleti score are off counterattacks (which rarely happen), their main attacking threat in Griezmann trying to create scoring chances or on set pieces.

They put those dogmatic tactics to the test in the first leg of the round of 16 in the Champions League this past week in a home match against Juventus, a club that is virtually a mirror image of Atletico and has also been a menace on the defensive side for years.

In their 2-0 victory, in a match that looked like it was heading to a draw after the 75th minute, Simeone’s side outmaneuvered the Serie A leaders by pressing aggressively with dogged tenacity in the central third, denying Juventus of getting in sync and moving the ball forward. They tackled well and took five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo out of the match by marking him between the lines tightly and taking away his space on the wing in take-on situations.

Wonder where those two goals came from? You guessed it - off two set pieces by Uruguayan centre-backs Diego Godin, one of the five best centre-backs in Europe in the past decade, and Jose Gimenez. It was a typical Atletico Madrid performance that Simeone drew up which might lead them to the club's first ever European Cup.

Atletico Madrid is simply the European soccer version of Virginia men’s basketball. They're both hard on the eyes, play at a slow pace, dream about grit and grind while tossing exercise balls, and have a methodical approach and are an all-out defensive steamroller. Another thing in common is that there both trying to squash the perception that teams can’t win a championship playing conservatively with a dominant defensive mindset and no offensive identity. Always remember that their style of play was made for football purists, not exuberant fans. The saying goes "beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but for plenty of soccer fans, the adage certainly doesn’t connect to Atletico Madrid.

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