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Saturday, December 10, 2022

A Plan That Worked Perfectly, Until the Moment It Didn’t

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MANCHESTER, England — After a while, feeling bored, cold and wet, Éderson decided to go for a walk. The Manchester City goalkeeper had spent 20 minutes dutifully guarding his penalty area. He had checked all four corners for danger. He found nothing. He had stared, squinting, into the distance, scanning for some threat on the horizon. Nothing there, either.

And so, idly, he wandered forward. He was entirely alone. There was nobody else in his half of the field. Manchester City’s central defenders, the players employed as his doughty sentries, were now stationed deep in Atlético Madrid territory, in the sorts of positions more habitually occupied by elfin attacking midfielders.

As he approached the halfway line, Éderson slowed his pace just a little. He had the air of a man who had been walking with no particular destination in mind: He did not really know what he planned to do when he got there. He bounced on his heels. He stretched down and touched his toes. He loitered for a few seconds, reveling in the sensation of what it must be like to be involved in a soccer match, and then, slowly made his way back, ruefully retaking his lonely post.

The Brazilian’s ennui could not — as it often can, during the course of both the domestic and the European seasons — be traced to Manchester City’s overwhelming superiority over its opposition, to its vast financial power, to its supercharged strength. Or, rather, it cannot solely be traced to that. To some extent, Éderson was bored because Atlético Madrid was content for him to be bored.

Raheem Sterling and City will take a 1-0 lead to Madrid for the second leg next week.Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Perhaps the best indication of how Diego Simeone, Atlético’s coach, intended to approach Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal came in its first second. Manchester City had the kickoff, and at that instant, every single Atlético player seemed to take a step back, each man moving a little farther into his own half.

Or maybe it was that brief, fleeting and possibly accidental moment when the redoubtable Geoffrey Kondogbia burst into City’s half, looked up, and saw nothing in front of him except a couple of light blue jerseys and a broad swath of green. His teammates had not so much as flickered. They were all locked in their holding pattern, under orders to stand their ground.

That is exactly how Simeone wants it, of course. The Argentine is in many ways the polar opposite to Pep Guardiola, his City counterpart. That is a cliché, now, the sort of glib judgment that feels too easy, but it holds true.

Guardiola’s vision of soccer is based on making space appear out of nowhere. Simeone’s is focused, laser sharp, on finding ways to make it evaporate. Guardiola has built his legend on making things happen. Simeone has constructed his on making sure they do not.

Guardiola has said, previously, that his ideal goal would involve every single player touching the ball, possibly more than once, before someone — it does not matter who — strokes it into an unguarded goal.

On Tuesday, Simeone seemed to be trying something different: chasing some mad dream in which an entire game went by without any of his players doing something as effete as actually touching the ball, so consumed were they by the important business of shutting down passing lanes and closing off angles of attack.

Bernardo Silva, seeking out the spaces that didn’t exist.Credit…Phil Noble/Reuters

The style is, when it works, difficult to love but easy to admire. And it has worked, and worked spectacularly, for some time. That doggedness, that resolve, that defiance has become the cornerstone of Atlético’s modern European identity, the core value that has turned a perpetual underdog into a true European power: a winner of two Spanish titles and two Europa Leagues, twice a Champions League finalist, now safely ensconced in its own spectacular and vaguely soulless suburban superdome.

And it almost worked here, too, against Guardiola’s latest masterpiece, a team that remains all but untouchable in the Premier League, a team that most likely ranks as the best in the world. Atlético stifled Manchester City almost entirely for the first half, and for vast tracts of the second, too, in the sort of vintage Simeone display that has earned Atlético its status as the standard-bearers of soccer’s counterculture, its final resistance to the prevailing wind of pressing and possession.

The almost is significant, though. Not simply because City did, eventually, pick its way through, Phil Foden carving a path past Atlético’s massed ranks, creating just enough space for Kevin de Bruyne to win the game. That will not detain Simeone unnecessarily. He would, privately, be pleased simply to have escaped from the Etihad with his side still in the tie.

Kevin De Bruyne delivered the only goal Manchester City needed on Tuesday night.Credit…Phil Noble/Reuters

No, far more important is what happened at the other end. There is one form of defense that Atlético, this Atlético, has not mastered, one aspect of its chosen art that continues to prove elusive: the attack.

The best defensive performances necessarily include moments of menace, after all. It is in those moments, those rare forays upfield, when an overworked defense has time to recover, to reorganize, to regroup. And it is in those moments, too, that doubt is sowed in the mind of the opposition, when even a team as fine as Manchester City starts to second-guess itself, when it begins to wonder if it should be committing quite so many players forward.

Simeone’s best Atlético teams had that: the pace of Antoine Griezmann, the guile of an autumnal David Villa, the taurine bellicosity of Diego Costa. This Atlético team does not. It did not muster a shot on goal in the first half. It had one, possibly, in the second, though there is a very good chance that it was meant as a cross.

That, ultimately, is the flaw in the plan, the problem with finding contentment in nothingness. The defense did not hold, not quite, and now Atlético must win in Madrid next week, and to do that it must open spaces, not close them. It must create, rather than destroy. Simeone was quite happy, it seemed, for Éderson to be bored. He was not nearly as happy, though, as Guardiola.

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