Stefan Savic of Atletico Madrid Joao Felix of Atletico Madrid celebrate after beating Manchester United.Image: Getty Images
You’re not supposed to miss a blister. You’re not supposed to get nostalgic about a paper cut on that webby part between your thumb and forefinger. You shouldn’t smile at stubbing your toe against the bed or couch that causes you to limp for an hour.
But when you’re watching Atlético Madrid, and they’ve been doing this for over a decade now, and they’re the only ones doing it, and it’s crystal clear how much they don’t care what you think, you can’t help it. Also helps when they’re knocking out Manchester United’s goofy ass out of the Champions League. Especially when it looked like United was unaware of how Diego Simeone has been sending out his charges for over 10 years now.
I don’t know if Atlético are a throwback. Certainly their roots are partly based in José Mourinho’s “park the bus” Chelsea teams that throttled the Premier League for a few years, along with the cult of personality that Mourinho engineered that was basically akin to a walking middle finger (sometimes literally). But it was never the dominant way of going about things at the top level of the game.
And especially now. Most every team, especially those getting to the latter stages of the game’s premier competition, want to press, get the ball back quickly, attack with fury, and do it all again. Not so Atlético, who aren’t just content to bunker in around their own penalty area, but they relish it. This is a team that wants to reenact the Alamo every chance they get. They’re only happy when it rains, as it were. They are a kidney stone.
What made last night’s signature Atlético performance so surprising, and reassuring, is that it felt like they had gotten away from their personality this season. Atlético has given up 36 goals in 28 games in La Liga this season, the 8th-most. There is no more alien sight than Atlético not being at the top of the goals-allowed category. That’s what they do, it’s what they’ve always done, and seeing them so easily punctured week after week was definitely in the “Wille Mays as a Met” category.
On the flipside, Atlético had turned on the spigot in attack, with the second most goals in Spain behind Real Madrid. While in the past there have been experts and pundits bemoaning the wasting of offensive talent that Atlético has had, out of sheer fatigue and defeat it had become accepted that Simeone would just never go total jam band in attack.
That has changed this year, with João Félix finally looking like one of the most expensive players of all time and Ángel Correa pouring in goals and assists, and midfielders like Tomas Lemar pushing forward instead of being used to man battle stations right in front of their defense. What was going on here?
Thankfully, the world was back on its axis yesterday. With the first leg having finished 1-1, Atlético knew that the best plan was to get the first goal at Old Trafford and then dare United to break them down. Which is exactly what they did. While United were ponderous for the most part when they had the ball – aimlessly passing the ball around and in front of Atlético while rarely doing anything penetrating or dangerous – on the rare occasions that Atlético got the ball they were rapier like, needing only three or four passes to get into the area. Which is how they scored:
And from there, even though they seemingly have gotten away from it this season, you can’t run from who you are for very long. The reflexes and instincts are never too far from the surface. On command, Atlético bunkered down, rarely emerging from their defensive third, sending Felix on aimless chases for long punts downfield on the rare times they had the ball.
But it worked, as it always did back in the day. United had one shot on target in the second half. They ran out of ideas on how to break down Atlético seemingly as soon as they exited the tunnel for the second half. There was the Atlético wall, and United’s answer was to continually try to run through it. The wall wins every time.
But watching Atlético go “Walls Of Troy” is about more than just positioning, work rate, and determination. It’s the bile with which they do it. The snarl. They dive, they bitch, they foul, they pick fights they have no intention of partaking in, they prod, they needle, they waste time, they’re just so unpleasant. And none of this is a secret. And yet teams get suckered in every time. As the game breaks down more and more into freekicks and arguments, United’s players were caught more and more in pleading with the ref or getting in the face of some Atlético player or shoving that just drew more time off the clock and disrupted whatever rhythm they had. Everything becomes pulling a car out of the mud against Atlético, and yet United kept rolling right back into it.
And Atlético are so happy to be a boil in the ear of the soccer world. It feels like when they’re not in this sort of cauldron–the big game with the atmosphere turning toxic with every additional theatrical dive–the parts don’t quite fit together. They leak in spots, joints creak, there’s a roar when trying to get started. But put them in this, with the crowd baying for blood as the match goes on and yet another group of players is gathering around the ref after some foul, and everything seals up. Atlético are the dismissive smile when everyone around them is just about on the verge of attacking them. The angrier you get, the more they know they have you.
Is it fun to watch? In a vacuum, hardly. But after this long doing it, the way they have it perfected, the trap everyone knows is coming and yet can’t help getting ensnared in, the dedication to being devious and underhanded, you can’t help but smile. They’re the only ones doing it, and no one has ever done it better. You need the outlier to know how brilliant the other sides are. Variety is the spice of life, after all. Or in Atlético’s case, the root canal of life.