The moment City drew Atletico in the Champions League quarter final, I think we all knew exactly how the game at the Etihad would play out. I guess the only question was, just how deep could Atletico defend? The answer, was very deep!
City kicked off and just 25 seconds into game, the template of the match was set; 21 of the participating 22 players crammed inside the Atletico half. The only difference at that point was Atletico’s shape. Their 5.3.2 system on paper very quickly became a 5+5. This had all the makings of a classic training exercise in the form of attack v defence. Could City’s attacking flair break down Simeone’s ultimate brick wall? The answer in the end, was just about. Mainly thanks to the fantastic Phil Foden.
The first half went exactly to plan for Atletico, they made it a none event. City were restricted to just 6 attempts with none of them threatening Oblak’s goal. The defensive discipline of the Spaniards must be applauded, they executed their game plan to a tee. So how did they do it? The main tactical aspects were built around; how they defended wide areas, being super aggressive on central passes and of course, a sprinkling of the ‘dark arts’. Let’s start with how they defended wide areas and against the switch of play.
Defending wide areas / the switch
Every time City switched play, wing backs Lodi and Vrsaljko swiftly got tight to City’s wingers – which are normal defensive habits for wings backs. The difference in Atleti’s approach (and the reason they were able to stay so compact) was instead of the side centre backs then being dragged wide to support the wing back on the side of the ball, it was the job of midfielders Kondogbia and Llorente to aggressively shift wide to help their wing back. The strikers were also asked to work back and support when defending wide positions. It meant that Atletico were never overloaded in wide areas but perhaps even more importantly, it didn’t open up the space that city love to play those little slide passes into. The tactic was able to succeed chiefly, through the work rate and discipline of midfielders Kondogbia and Llorente. They stayed disciplined, never jumping out of shape to press until the right moment.
On moments where they had to jump, the striker on that side would fill the vacated space of their midfield team mate. It effectively meant that Atleti always had a solid back 4 shape to defend the box. Any crosses that came in aerially, they could dominate against City’s small forwards. Any little passes down the sides would have to be through the eye of the smallest needle. In effect, Atleti asked City a question – Can you play the perfectly weighted pass in the tightest space? The answer for the first 60 minutes at least, was no. Like it or loath it, the work and detail that goes into such discipline can only be admired.
Aggressive on central passes
The second part of their solid defensive game plan came whenever City played centrally into their midfield or forward line. Throughout the game, Atleti were happy to allow City’s back four or Rodri the ball without too much concern. For everyone else the task was simple, afford less than zero space. Unlike when defending wide areas (where Atletico created a back 4 which had to keep its shape centrally), the rules different when City played centrally. In these instances, centre backs Savic, Felipe and Reinildo were super aggressive to jump out of the line and close the space in front – normally supported by a midfielder closing from the other side to create a 2v1. These were the only moments of the game where Atleti’s backline became numerically less than 4 players. This was a very successful tactic in the opening 60 minutes of the match, in the first half alone City must have lost the ball centrally on at least 7-8 occasions and were never able to link successfully when playing the ball centrally.
The Dark Arts
The final part of the game plan was built around ‘game management’…..if we are going to term it kindly. This is something that anyone who’s watched Simeone’s teams before knew would be on the menu. It’s not all build around fouls and slowing the game down in that way. Yes the goalkeeper takes his times on his kicks but the Atleti way is much more subtle than that. Their main method of time wasting comes in the form of throw in’s. Reinildo stole 40 seconds from the clock by simply working out where his throw should be taken from. Simeone himself managed to eat away another 30 seconds by holding onto the ball himself after a loose Cancelo touch. This element of their tactics was all aimed at disrupting City’s flow, slowing the game down and frustrating the men from Manchester. This was aptly deduced by a frustrated Stones who lashed over the bar from the best part of 25 yards at the end of a frustrating first half and post match by City’s Belgian midfield maestro Kevin De Bruyne;
Heading into the second half, neither manager opted for reinforcements from the bench during the interval. Pep moved Sterling from the left into a more central position, allowing Bernardo Silva to move wider. The flow of the game remained very similar, Mahrez still wanted to come towards the ball too often and move inside towards the traffic. Bernardo tried to stay wider which opened up the odd bit of space for De Bruyne but ultimately Atleti were still comfortable. City won a string of free kicks and corners but weren’t really able to build up ahead of steam. As Atleti switched off to a quickly taken free kick and City continued to huff and puff, it was clear changed were needed. Atleti went first with a hat trick; including the freshening of 2 of their 3 midfield work horses. Llorente and Koke had done their yards, now it was on Rodrigo De Paul and Cunha to take on the baton. Pep waited until the 67th minute and Simeone must have looked on in envy as Sterling, Mahrez and Gundogan were replaced by Jesus, Grealish and Foden. It was the latter who would ultimately unlock the stubborn Spanish resistance with a 20 minute masterclass of technique and precision in the tightest of spaces. So what did Foden bring that the others didn’t?
Foden steals the show
Ultimately Foden was able to answer the question Atleti asked City all night – Can you play the perfectly weighted pass in the tightest space? His answer, was yes. His 1st touch was impeccable between the lines before taking 3 further intricate yet explosive touches to just allow himself the space to slide De Bruyne in through the legs of Reinildo. The pass had to be through the eye of the thinnest needle, which it was. It had to be executed at the highest speed with 3 Atletico defenders rapidly closing, which it was. Foden did what world class players do: he executed skill to the highest level, on the biggest stage, at the crucial moment. He unlocked Atleti again in the 79th minute, those same rapid touches saw him glide past 2 defenders before De Bruyne’s shot was blocked. Fatigue was now surely playing a part as well for the Atleti defenders, but those minute spaces City had once worked in were now made to look like full continents by Foden’s explosive footwork. In his final act, he was able to slide De Bruyne in once more who’s initial pull back was blocked. Foden himself latched onto the lose ball only to see his shot blocked as well.
City head over to Madrid with a deserved 1-0 lead and the question for Simeone is now, how can his Atletico side score at least 1 goal but maintain their defensive discipline?