Most of the good teams in world soccer play roughly the same way.
Everyone has taken the best principles from Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, mixed them up, and created a universal system of Good Soccer. It’s characterized by a high defensive line and high pressing, but with some degree of midfield organization. These teams are almost always in some variety of 4-3-3 formation, and adept in possession. The defenders can play short and medium-range passes, but are more often looking for counterattacks.
There is some differentiation across teams based on the skills of a particular team’s best player, or the tactical needs of a certain matchup, but in general soccer is much less diverse than it was a decade ago. The Guardiola/Klopp schools of thought are so ubiquitous that it feels like a novelty to see a good team choose to do something entirely different. Enter Atlético Madrid, who formed a wall in front its net the moment it went 1-0 up on Liverpool during its Champions League Round of 16 matchup.
It was signature Atléti. Diego Simeone has been in charge since 2011, and his team has been known for the same look for most of that time: An ultra-defensive, ultra-compact 4-4-2 formation in which the strikers sit in the space where most teams put their central midfielders. When executed perfectly, it is nearly impossible to break down.
Liverpool couldn’t sort out how to do it. The 1-0 score held for 90 minutes, and the Reds — defending champions of Europe, undefeated in the Premier League over the last year, and scorer of 61 goals in 26 league games this season — never even put a shot on target.
After the match, Liverpool complained about its opponent’s negativity, and insisted the result was simply due to bad luck. But that’s not true: Liverpool might have had 73 percent of the possession, but it never had an advantage for one second.
Before the match, it wasn’t clear if Atléti was still capable of a performance like this. Last year, they lost several great players whose careers were tied to the system, including Gabi, the long-time captain and on-field general; Diego Godin, once arguably the best defender in the world; and fullbacks Felipe Luis and Juanfran, who were fixtures of the back line. No obvious leaders were brought on to replace them. Atléti took just one point off Juventus in the Champions League group stage, and lost away to Bayer Leverkusen. Its five goals conceded in six games is far from poor, but also far from what everyone has come to expect from Europe’s most famously defensive team.
On the attacking end, Antoine Griezmann, the one man who was allowed a bit of tactical freedom while everyone else did the dirty work, has not actually been replaced. The €126 million Joao Felix is still expected to turn his Atléti career around and become a superstar, but he has looked like a naive 20-year-old this season. Alvaro Morata has always been more of a supporting striker than a volume scorer. And 31-year-old Diego Costa is past the peak of his powers. Atléti’s 25 goals in 24 league games is an embarrassing return for a team of its financial resources.
And yet, Atléti’s defense — somewhat secretly before Tuesday’s match, it seems — is still elite. Its Expected Goals per shot conceded is the best in both La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. The Rojiblancos still don’t give up quality shots to anyone, and they’re among the best in the world in several other defensive categories as well, according to StatsBomb.
Although Simeone lost some of the most consistent defensive performers in the world, his back line has only barely skipped a beat. New fullback Renan Lodi has exceeded expectations. Central defender Felipe, who joined from Porto in the summer, looks like he’s been part of the system for years. Kieran Trippier was a star when he was fit, and Šime Vrsaljko deputized superbly on Tuesday night. Thomas Partey, a crucial role-player for the last two seasons, has turned into a defensive leader in midfield.
Atléti’s struggles in La Liga and the Champions League group stage have brought Simeone under criticism for the first time in his career. Many have wondered if this will be his last season managing the club that he has synonymous with, and whether it’s time for both parties to move on. But on Tuesday, we saw vintage Atléti, even if vintage Atléti’s signature players are no longer with the club.
Football has changed dramatically since 2011, and so has Atlético Madrid, but Simeone is still exactly the same.