On the 18th of Febraury, the seemingly unstoppable Champions of Europe returned to the stadium where they had won their crown, this time to face off against an Atletico Madrid which appeared to be struggling to find it’s way. Fourth in the league and knocked out of the Copa del Rey by a third tier team, the demoralised Colchoneros were about to play a huge match, once again, as the underdogs. Despite this, once the 90 minutes were up, the spanish side had shown their stubborn face in an unexpected 1-0 victory. So, how did Simeone topple the Premier League’s runaway leaders?
Atletico’s impressive feat was a result of multiple factors, all of which will be covered; first of which should be mentioned being luck.
Good fortune undeniably helped “el Cholo” when a muddle up in the opposition’s box after the first corner led to the ball rolling past Saul who tucked it behind a stranded Alisson. This early goal changed the way the rest of the match unraveled, giving a cruel mirror image to Sissoko’s second minute handball in last season’s final.
Once the game got truly underway, the two manager’s tactic’s did a large part in dictating the final outcome of the confrontation. As one would expect from him, Simeone played his usual card of holding out the match in a defensive position. But if stopping one of the best attacking forces in football was as easy as cramming every player on the pitch between the ball and the goal, the scouser outfit wouldn’t be the serial winners they are. So what exactly did the argentine do? Well he started off by having the defence lie deep, eliminating the possibility of long balls being lobbed to the Red’s pacy wingers. As well as this, the team played as a very narrow block, drowning the creators in Liverpool’s central midfield. This left space down the wings through which Klopp’s fullbacks could run in and combine with Mohammed Salah or Sadio Mane. However, Atleti’s well drilled defence was always able to shift across as a unit in time to cover each side if it became dangerous. For a more detailed and visual tactical view, see the video linked at the bottom.
The attitudes that each team went into the match with were of crucial importance as psychology notably affected both their performances. Liverpool are tearing up their domestic league, with only one draw in a season of pure victories; while their opponents have been going through a rough adaptation period after a restructuring of the squad. It is understandable that the Reds’ players underestimated their counterparts, but it was a mistake that took them too long to correct. While one side went in adequately motivated and energetic, the other fought every minute of the match with a fury clearly inspired by a certain south american coach and the roaring home crowd. The Rojiblancos tirelessly chased the ball and ran from space to space, which slowly exasperated the visitors who grew sloppier with their increasing frustration. Most notably, there was the case of Renan Lodi, a recently signed leftback who hadn’t completely gained Simeone’s confidence yet. Allegedly, “el Cholo” initially wanted a more experienced Saul to play in the brazilian’s position, but he gave the young defender a chance. Lodi pounced on his opportunity to prove himself. Faced against one of the most elite right wingers in europe, he covered Salah and atleti’s entire left flank with so much determination, it earned him the man of the match award.
As impressive as the “Colchoneros” feat was in this single match, it is only half of the story of a two-legged tie. Klopp and Simeone will both need to change their game plans as they continue the battle for a spot in the quarter finals.
Liverpool have been put in a tight spot and to stand a chance at progressing, the charismatic german will have to begin by reshaping his attack. Falling into the trap of pushing down the open wings made his side predictable, so in the Anfield clash, more creative routes will have to be taken. Ideally, the lineup would feature a central midfielder who can turn quickly with the ball and give off passes under pressure in order to take advantage of Firmino’s dangerous third man runs or find one of their fast wide men in open space. This could be an opportunity for the newly arrived Takumi Minamino to make a difference as well as Naby Keita or Alex Oxlade Chamberlain a chance, after their displaces against West Ham. Regarding the back line, Atleti was only really able to create danger from quick breaks so the defense could be kept the same. As well as tactical changes, the scousers will need to up their intensity. With the home crowd favouring them this time, they will need to show an energy and work rate to match their spanish rivals who will undoubtedly fight until the final whistle. Mentality can define results, and in a clash like this one, the Reds will need to go all out, which they have shown the capability to do so with their backs against the wall in European games. Such as Barcelona in last seasons Champions League, Man City the season before and in 2016 against Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League.
On their part, the visiting Iberians will need to look back at their elimination at Juventus’ hands from last season’s round of 16 if they don’t wish to relive a grim night. “El Cholo”s men had managed an impressive 2-0 home victory against a Massimiliano Allegri’s star-studded side, but in the following match, the argentine coach assumed his opposition would mantain the same style of play, so he planned his defence accordingly, sat back and watched the Allegri’s Juve attack for ninety minutes. While this year he isn’t facing the aerially dominant Ronaldo, Simeone will still have to anticipate his rival’s change in game plan. Even though a deep defensive strategy worked in the first confrontation, for the follow up Atleti will need to hold possesion for longer and attempt to create danger; an away goal would be a huge step closer to the next stage of the competition. However, in facing a back line led by Van Dijk, los colchoneros should aim to move up with quick breaks down the flanks; ideally with slippery dribblers such as Yannick Carrasco and the returning Joao Felix. Furthermore, strong midfielders will be needed to play through Klopp’s notorious ‘gegenpress’ recovery strategy, so Hector Herrera and Thomas would be the ideal names for the job.
No two matches of football are ever the same, and once the first whistle blows, anything can happen. The current result is far from set in stone and either team can rise or fall. Only the coming match can show us the end of this story.