MANCHESTER — Only Diego Simeone knows whether he really believed that his approach could work. Was Atletico Madrid’s only chance of getting anything against Manchester City by abandoning all ambition, waiting for a mistake that might never come and hoping that a back line that isn’t what it was might be able to cling on?
In the end it did not. La Liga’s reigning champions were lucky to escape the Etihad Stadium trailing only to Kevin De Bruyne’s 70th minute goal after a game in which they had offered next to nothing beyond the small area in front of their box. Simeone has used these tactics to infuriate Pep Guardiola in the past, knocking Bayern Munich out at the Champions League semifinals six years ago, but lightning tends not to strike the same person twice.
Generally, if you allow an opponent to have 302 touches in your final third while you register 260 fewer, if you lose the shot battle 15-0 and go several minutes without even touching the ball, you are not going to get a smash-and-grab 1-0 win. Indeed, you should probably take your 1-0 defeat and be grateful for it. If there was a brief moment where it seemed City’s neuroses in this competition might get the better of them, it faded into insignificance set against those lengthy spells where it was apparent, Atleti could not just sit back and wait for something to happen.
Fresh legs and fresh minds proved to be enough to get City across the line. Phil Foden’s introduction gave Guardiola the one thing he had been missing as his side ground down their opposition. Someone who could beat the two or three defenders Simeone routinely sends swarming at any attacker. He did it with a quick dart and a slide rule pass, unleashing Kevin De Bruyne in behind to fizz a shot across Jan Oblak, firing the hosts into the lead in the tie. Simeone may well believe that his side are still in it, heading back home down only a goal, but he will also know how much harder the task will be at the Wanda Metropolitana, where they are going to need to kick the football at the goal a bit more often (i.e. at all) if they are to win the night and the tie.
He may well need favors from a City side that looked firmly in the groove tonight even if it never hit top gear. There was to be no great galaxy brain moment from Pep Guardiola. Nathan Ake might not have been the orthodox choice at fullback with Oleksandr Zinchenko on the bench, but his tendency to form a back three, albeit one camped on the edge of the attacking third, unleashed Joao Cancelo to travel wherever the mood took him. That could be anywhere from the byline to the number 10 position, sometimes in the same move.
For the first time since the FA Cup third round win over Swindon Town, there was no room in the starting XI for either Jack Grealish or Phil Foden, though it was swiftly apparent why the latter would not be required to play as the central attacker lurking on the shoulders of the Atletico Madrid defense. Try to burst in behind and a forward would only be a few feet from Jan Oblak’s goal line. Better to have Bernardo Silva coming to the ball as a true false nine.
Indeed, Atletico set out their stall in a manner not dissimilar to a League Two side in the early rounds of the FA Cup. One bank of five shielded the other, the space in which City might prosper becoming a trash compactor, appropriate for a first half that by its conclusion felt garbage adjacent.
There is a tendency to look for higher meaning in such boring fare. This must be one of those Diego Simeone masterclasses. And perhaps it was, but surely to be a really effective defensive display must come with the threat that something, anything, might come at the other end? For too much of this game, Atletico did not look like a threat to get into the City third, let alone to test Ederson. That’s the inevitable reality of starting your attacks on the edge of your own penalty area.
One could sense how tired Atletico were in their flurry of counter attacks early in the first half. Antoine Griezmann seemed to age from 21 to 31 in the course of one break, Marcos Llorente’s shot was so tame that it would appear Opta registered it as an incomplete pass. Ultimately, a team that had Griezmann, Joao Felix, Angel Correa, Matheus Cunha, Rodrigo De Paul and Thomas Lemar on the pitch ended the game with 0.00 expected goals, 0.00 shots and about as many touches in the final third as Riyad Mahrez managed in 68 minutes.
Meanwhile, Cancelo’s fizzing crosses were nervously hacked away. Raheem Sterling nearly turned in an Ilkay Gundogan shot, Jan Oblak just about scrambled a De Bruyne free kick to safety. Half a dozen appeals for penalties left Istvan Kovacs unmoved; if none of them were stonewall spot kicks that slipped under the radar, it is also true that another referee might have given more than one of them. And there were three potential game changers waiting in the wings.
The levee was only going to hold for so long. Foden brought a fizz to the contest, a commitment to driving at the Atletico defense, forcing them upfield to try to slow his advances. Simeone’s men were still back in numbers, but when Foden could beat three of them, it really did not matter. One dart, a through ball on a plate for Kevin De Bruyne and 70 minutes of conservatism were wasted (unless you believe that all this team could hope for was to lose by a narrow margin).
There might have been more. Foden continued to probe menacingly around the inside right channel. Atletico, meanwhile, fell into bad habits, subjecting Grealish to the most rough house of treatment in the closing stages. He and his teammates should probably expect more of that next week in Madrid, where Atletico simply cannot replicate this remarkably passive performance. If they do, they will be lucky to escape with the same score as Tuesday night.