Manchester City find a breakthrough against Atlético Madrid

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

And so, lazily, he advanced. He was completely alone. There was no one else in his half of the field. Manchester City’s centre-backs, the players employed as its valiant sentinels, were now stationed deep within Atlético Madrid territory, in the sort of positions more usually occupied by elven attacking midfielders.

Approaching the halfway line, Ederson slowed his pace a bit. He looked like a man who had wandered around with no particular destination in mind: he didn’t really know what he intended to do when he got there. He bounced on his heels. He stretched and touched his toes. He lingered for a few seconds, reveling in the sensation of what it must be like to be involved in a football game, then, slowly returning, sadly resumed his solitary post.

The Brazilian’s boredom could not – as it often can, in domestic and European seasons – be attributed to Manchester City’s overwhelming superiority over their opposition, their vast financial might, their supercharged strength. Or rather, it cannot be attributed solely to this. To some extent, Ederson was bored because Atlético Madrid were content with him being bored.

Perhaps the best indication of how Atlético manager Diego Simeone intended to approach Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League quarter-final came in his opening second. Manchester City kicked off, and in that moment every Atlético player seemed to take a step back, each man moving a little further into their own half.

Or maybe it was that brief, fleeting and perhaps accidental moment when the fearsome Geoffrey Kondogbia burst into the City half, looked up and saw nothing in front of him except some light blue jerseys and a wide band of green. His teammates hadn’t even trembled. They were all locked in their holding patterns, under orders to hold on.

That’s exactly what Simeone wants, of course. The Argentine is in many ways the polar opposite of Pep Guardiola, his City counterpart. It’s a cliche, now, the kind of flippant judgment that seems too easy, but it’s true.

Guardiola’s vision of football is based on making space appear out of nowhere. Simeone is focused, laser-precise, on finding ways to make him evaporate. Guardiola built his legend by making things happen. Simeone has built his own making sure they don’t.

Guardiola has previously said his ideal goal would involve every player touching the ball, perhaps more than once, before someone – no matter who – kicks it into an unguarded goal.

On Tuesday, Simeone seemed to be trying something different: chasing a crazy dream in which an entire game went by without any of his players doing anything as brazen as touching the ball, so engrossed were they in the game. important matter of closing passing lanes. and close the angles of attack.

Style is, when it works, hard to love but easy to admire. And it worked, and worked spectacularly, for a while. This stubbornness, this determination, this challenge have become the cornerstone of Atlético’s modern European identity, the fundamental value that has transformed a perpetual outsider into a true European power: winner of two Spanish titles and two Europa Leagues, two-time Champions League finalist, now safely ensconced in his own spectacular and vaguely soulless suburban superdome.

And it almost worked here too, against Guardiola’s latest masterpiece, a team that remains virtually untouchable in the Premier League, a team that most likely ranks among the best in the world. Atlético stifled Manchester City almost entirely in the first half, and for vast swaths of the second as well, in the kind of vintage Simeone display that earned Atlético their status as the flag bearer of the football counterculture, its ultimate resistance to the prevailing wind. pressing and possession.

The almost is significant, however. Not just because City finally managed to fight their way through, Phil Foden pushed his way past the massive ranks of Atlético, creating just enough space for Kevin de Bruyne to win the game. It won’t hold Simeone back unnecessarily. He would, privately, be happy simply to have escaped the Etihad with his side still tied.

No, much more important is what happened on the other end. There is a form of defense that Atlético, this Atlético, have not mastered, an aspect of their chosen art that continues to prove elusive: the attack.

The best defensive performances necessarily include moments of threat, after all. It’s in those moments, those rare forays into the field, when an overworked defense has time to recover, to reorganize, to regroup. And it is also in these moments that doubt is sown in the mind of the opponent, when even a team as fine as Manchester City begins to question itself, when it begins to wonder if it should not not engage as many cheeky players.

The best teams of Atlético de Simeone had that: the rhythm of Antoine Griezmann, the cunning of an autumnal David Villa, the bullfighting warmongering of Diego Costa. This Atlético team doesn’t. He didn’t manage a shot on goal in the first half. There might have been one in the second, though there’s a very good chance it was a cross.

It is, ultimately, the flaw of the plan, the problem of finding contentment in nothingness. The defense didn’t hold, not quite, and now Atlético have to win in Madrid next week, and for that they have to open up spaces, not close them. It must create rather than destroy. Simeone was rather glad, it seemed, that Ederson was bored. He was, however, not as happy as Guardiola.

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