Atletico Madrid prove, again, they're so much more than a great defence
"Bayern Munich are one of the best teams in the world and I can't remember the last time they lost," Diego Simeone said. No? Here's a clue: you were there. In fact, you had a pretty good view of the winning goal -- you said so yourself. You were in your usual place, dressed your usual way: all in black, on the touchline not too far away when Saúl set off through their defence.
The last time Bayern Munich lost was almost five months ago, against Atlético Madrid at the Vicente Calderón. This week, they were back again... and they were beaten again. Bayern have lost just twice in 26 games, both of them to Atlético. "We were happy when the goal went in," Simeone said back then; he was happier still this time. When he drove home a bit before midnight, he pulled away out the north end of the stadium, beep-beeping his horn.
Atlético have lost twice in 19 Champions League group games; they've only been beaten once at home in this competition under Simeone. They've kept 13 clean sheets in their last 14 games and of 269 games with this coach, 143 have ended without them conceding. It's 23 of 38 in Europe. But, then, you probably knew that. Not the exact stats, perhaps, but the sense. You probably didn't need the list of European goals conceded at the Calderón -- 0, 0, 0, 2, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 0, 1, 0 -- to know they're brilliant at defending.
Good defending: it's is just what they do, isn't it?
Well, yes. But it's not just good defending that they do. Nor is it just resisting, last-gasp heroics either. Last season, it's true that Atlético were fortunate to reach the final. They held on in Munich, practically hiding under the bed as Bayern battered them. The Germans had 33 shots, the most Atlético have ever allowed in the Champions League by a very long way. Only "allowed" is not the word. They did not allow this; they endured it. Usually, it is different: much more controlled, much more deliberate. More impressive, too. Two Champions League finals in three years is no fluke.
Not that everyone is impressed, mind you, and there is a current of thought that says that in Milan they failed to really go for Real Madrid when they were on the ropes. It is an accusation that appears to be levelled at them more than at other clubs that defend and protect, seeking the break. Like their opponents in the Milan final itself, for instance. There's something a little sneering about the way that people often talk about Atlético, all parked busses and dirty cynicism.
Atletico are defensive, yes, and the coach that left the Calderón defeated and muttering that they were a "horrible team" had a point -- all the more so back when he said it, 18 months or so ago -- but it's not so simple. It never has been, and now less than ever. It's not the same, either; something is shifting.
After Wednesday night's match Carlo Ancelotti, the only manager to have knocked Atlético out of Europe in three years and the manager who defeated them in the final in Lisbon in 2014 (but also a manager who has still not won at the Calderón) was asked what had changed. What differences are there between this Atlético and the one that he faced when he was manager of Real Madrid?
"I see the same team," Ancelotti said. "They have a little more profundidad ["depth to the attack, the ability to get behind defences"] as they have very fast players up front, but the style is the same."
Is it, though? It was an unexpectedly curt and slightly dismissive reply from Ancelotti; it also felt a little flawed. The ideals remain steadfast and some of the characteristics are the same -- the intensity, the seriousness, the organisation, the statistics, all those clean sheets -- but those come as standard now and always have and this is a team that is evolving too, that's changing.
This was another 1-0 win, sure, but that was not all this was. Of seven shots, Atletico had on target. Another nine were off target, significantly more than Bayern. Fernando Torres hit the post and the side-netting. Antoine Griezmann hit the bar with a penalty, again. Yannick Carrasco drew a stunning save from Manuel Neuer. Simeone explained how his team had tried to box Bayern into their left corner, allowing them to win the ball in positions that facilitated swift attacks but this was not just about the break. This was pressing high, not waiting low and launching it.
Gabi, the great forgotten man of Spanish football over the past four years, controlled the midfield with Koke. There was possession when they needed it, patience when they didn't have it and precision in virtually everything they did. If Torres was as much defender as attacker, asked to suffocate Xabi Alonso and deny Bayern an exit from deep, full-back Filipe Luis was as much attacker as defender. And it is not like Torres, withdrawn to a huge ovation, did not attack either.
Atlético created too, but they had less of the ball? Pretty much everyone does against Bayern. And while the essence remains, there were signs of something different here that have been repeated in the past few weeks. While some say Atlético should attack Barcelona like they attacked Sporting, who they defeated 4-0, does anyone really do that? Simeone admitted Atlético find it harder against teams that play defensively against them. But who doesn't? And while they stood accused against Alavés (1-1) and Deportivo (1-0), those results hid the fact that they have actually created a huge amount of chances at home this season; there has been variety too.
That is what Atlético are working towards now, while trying not to lose the solidity that has made them so successful. It is an evolution that they began last season, a shift towards 4-3-3 only to get back to what they know. At the time, Simeone said that Atletico's history was rooted in the counter-attack and that he would respect that. But it was never that simple and nor was his team; now, it seems that Simeone is ready to really force through a significant shift, symbolised in part by the position of Koke in the centre.
It is not an entirely new idea. Simeone explained that he has been moving towards this for two years: sometimes playing Koke as part of a central three, sometimes in a pair, trying him and testing him, but invariably returning him to a narrow position on the edge of the midfield. At times, the coach seemed to be trying to get as many central midfielders into his team as possible, protection first; now there's more width, more willingness to commit. Simeone seems ready to leave Koke centrally; now, finally, he seems to think that Koke is ready too, and that could impact everything.
"He feels more and more like the master of the play," Simeone said. "He reads the game fantastically, he works well, the team comes out much more quickly when it gets the ball back when he is there, and [being inside] he gives us an extra option on the wing." Options like Carrasco, Nicolas Gaitán, Angel Correa, with Filipe Luis and Juanfran hammering up alongside them and Kevin Gameiro or Torres through the middle. Meanwhile, Griezmann is "Messifying," playing with freedom all over the pitch, drifting in from right, left and deep, his performances getting better all the time.
Simeone insists that Griezmann is among the three best players in the world. Even the penalty miss didn't bother him. "He missed a penalty, just like [Diego] Maradona has, [Lionel] Messi has ... I don't know, [Michel] Platini, Zico ..." the Atlético manager said. He was happy, open, expansive; it even feels there's something in the fact that his post-match comments have gone from "work, sacrifice, effort" to long, detailed tactical explanations.
"There are moments that won't come back, that you have to look after. This is one of them and hopefully, together, we can water this, nurture it, by living this with passion," he said. "I feel fortunate to be these players' coach: they play with a passion and a commitment that's hard to find." A talent, too, even if that is less readily recognised.
What did you like about this game, Simeone was asked.
"Everything," he said.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.