After reaching two finals in the tournament in three years, the Madrid outfit faced disappointment against Juventus on Tuesday night.
You have won 2-0 against Ronaldo’s Juventus at home in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. All you need to go through is to play a pro-active game that does not let your opponent exert their authority and get on top of you in order to push for the goals.
What do you actually do instead?
You line up to defend with a 4-4-2 with no regard for having either possession of the ball or trying to create chances of your own in order to put the tie to bed with an away goal once and for all. You think you can defend for the entirety of ninety minutes and get duly rewarded for it.
Yesterday’s pathetic performance from Atletico was another in a long line of results that have exposed Cholo Simeone’s mental barrier – he goes back to resorting to hardcore defence when pressed in critical situations and has to pay the price for it every time.
Diego Simeone is the single biggest reason why Atletico Madrid are where they are right now. After taking over the club in 2011, Cholo imposed his own distinct and unique philosophy ‘Cholismo’ that brings the best out of his players, makes them resemble more like warriors and less like footballers, and has brought a wonderful string of results that has kept Atletico afloat in the discussions of the best clubs in the world.
Since then, Cholo has also led Atletico to two Champions League finals and this is where his legacy takes a dent because every time Atletico take the lead in a game, it baffles them so much that they go back to defending in numbers, let the opposition take over and suffer instead. And this is how they lost two Champions League titles to arch-rivals Real Madrid.
The disastrous performance against Juventus in Turin was a testament to the same.
Atletico were the better side in the first leg when these two sides met at the Metropolitano. They had a couple of goals cancelled out by VAR but showed positive character until the very last minute of the game. Atletico pressed well, hunted Juve players down in packs, were efficient in transition, used the wings to stretch the play and tried to hurt Juventus on the counter with pace and fluidity.
This display of ‘cojones’ as Diego Simeone so iconically gestured at the Wanda Metropolitano after the game, saw them being rewarded with two crucial and vital goals that swung the balance of the tie in their favour.
Following the first leg at home, Atletico had a good string of results in the domestic league where they did not manage to impress much but got the job done anyway in typical Atletico fashion to keep the pressure up on league leaders Barcelona.
The match that earned Simeone the LaLiga in 2014
Having reached Turin for the second leg, Diego Simeone somehow decided to do away with everything positive from the first leg that got them the lead that they were trying desperately to cling on to.
In the 21st century, protecting a lead with all-out defence hardly works for managers as the game has become more rapid, pacey and attack-oriented through the years. ‘Attack is the best form of defence’, said one Johan Cruyff years ago and it still stands true to this day.
Few exceptions aside (Mourinho with Inter in 2010 against Barcelona being a notable one), nobody has ever got the job done by trying to contain the opposition for the entirety of ninety minutes and protecting the scoreline.
Simeone’s teams aren’t an exception either. They were contended with Juventus having the ball and enjoying their fair share of possession right from the very first. Simeone chose not to press frantically in order to seek out moments where he could hit Juventus backline on the counter with pace and energy, hoping Massimiliano Allegri‘s men would tire themselves out. But it was left too late.
Juventus were lethal with possession, they pressed like mad dogs and won balls back as soon as it fell to the legs of an Atleti player and they hounded them in possession, pinging balls from either flank and into the centre for Ronaldo, Mandzukic and Bernardeschi to find.
Cristiano Ronaldo got to the end of two such crosses and decided the tie in their favour. Even with the scoreline 2-2 on aggregate, Atletico did little to crawl out of the hole they had dug for themselves and Simeone’s plans crumbled and fell apart once Juventus got through Cristiano from 12 yards.
Watch: Atletico Madrid’s thrashing by the hands of Real Madrid in LaLiga 2018-19
And even with Atletico chasing the game, it was still Juventus who was running the show, chasing balls, trying to create chances in the dying minutes. Diego Simeone’s side became a victim of their own medicine and this is exactly what happens when you give up on control of the game. And this is something that has happened to Cholo for a lot of important games now- almost like he is too scared to dare to go in front.
Having built a dynasty from nothing, Diego Simeone now has the tools in a great squad and a decent chequebook that gets handed to him every summer, trying to seek out the players he wants and yet, despite that Atletico are neither the favourites nor in the contention to win major silverware.
So that begs of asking a question. Whether Simeone has actually hit his peak with Atletico and can take them no further from here?
And as last night, and so many games over the years suggested collectively, the answer swings in favour of yes.
Atletico de Madrid should and will probably build statues dedicated to Cholo Simeone outside their stadiums but it is time they try going a different path with someone new with a fresh bucket of ideas to complement to Simeone’s Cholismo philosophy and someone who can get the best out of the side in the most important games.