Atlético have played remarkably different styles in the Champions League and La Liga this season.
Close your eyes and picture a Diego Simeone team and there it is, in crystal clear 1080p: two banks of four; a solo, sprightly presser; rigid adherence to the coach’s doctrine.
Throughout his time in Madrid, Simeone has been famed for his disciplined style. There have been game-to-game tweaks here and there — a shift from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1 or the like — but that same motif has always been there: A focus on the defensive block and quick-strike transitions.
This year was supposed to be different. Atletico had snatched wunderkind João Félix away from the hands of Europe’s biggest sides. There was a promise, supposedly, that with Felix joining the likes of Thomas Lemar and Marcos Llorente that Simeone was willing to open things up.
Yeah, that didn’t happen. Atletico’s season has been a stinker so far: 10 wins from 24 league games. They’re 4th in La Liga, 13 points behind a similarly flawed Real Madrid side. Whether or not Atletico are struggling because Diego Simeone has changed, or are they are struggling because they’re different, and he stayed the same has become a constant, thumping question in Spanish football.
What’s fascinating as it relates to Liverpool: Atleti have been a much different side in Europe this season than domestically.
In La Liga, Simeone has stuck to his guns. The team still plays like an underdog, sitting and waiting for the opposition to make a mistake in possession and then breaking at speed. They play with a low, low block even when their wage budget as well as their attacking talent out-guns the opposition almost ten to one. The manager still has not found a way to squeeze Felix, Ángel Correa, Diego Costa, Álvaro Morata, Koke, and Saúl Ñíguez into the same starting XI.
It’s been a mess. Threading the needle between style and substance isn’t easy. Typically teams get too lopsided one way or the other. Atleti have been the worst of both, lacking any style and losing a whole bunch of their substance. They have been plodding and mundane in possession. All of the incisiveness that characterized their title-winning days has gone.
Things have been different in Europe, though. Yes, it’s only been six games, but it’s a big enough sample size, against a higher level of competition, to deduce that the difference is by design.
Atlético are attempting and completing more than 100 passes per 90 in the Champions League compared to La Liga, an enormous jump. And it’s not like Juventus, Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow, the teams that made up Atleti’s group, are slouches. Each of them looks to control the tempo of the game. Even Leverkusen, who do most of their damage in transition, have morphed into more of a possession orientated side this season. Over the course of their six group stage games, their xG is 10.7, arround 1.8 xG per 90. In the league, that number tumbles to 1.3.
Simeone’s side has played on the front foot more in Europe than domestically. They’re attempting eight more crosses per game, and averaging 13 more passes per 90 in the final third — that might not sound like a big leap, but it’s massive.
The team’s domestic troubles have mostly come thanks to Simeone’s staunch reliance on his deep block. His team sits in. The opposition sits in. The oxygen is ripped out of the game. Nobody can establish any kind of rhythm. Matches become a snooze fest. Atletico have drawn ten games in the league this season and in all but one they’ve failed to score more than one goal; Six of their draws have been 0-0.
Defensively, they have the best record in the league — again. But it has come at a pretty obvious cost.
Which team will Liverpool see on Tuesday night? It’s unusual for a coach to become more expansive, more attacking in Europe. But that’s what makes Simeone such a maverick. In Europe, the competition gets tougher, the games are tighter, every goal matters that little bit more. Yet Simeone has been more willing to let his players get on the ball and play.
There’s an important note here: the discipline that defines the Simeone-era has remained the same. They’ve have the ball a lot and they’ve move it well, but it’s still been at a subtle, more controlled tempo, with the fear of getting countered always on their mind.
Given Liverpool’s attacking prowess, it would seem obvious that Simeone would roll out his league set-up. But given that Liverpool have undergone their own transition from heavy-metal rockers to classical, pass-and-move artists, perhaps the manager thinks the best way to punish them is to keep the ball away.
It’s unusual, but then Simeone is an unusual manager. Jürgen Klopp must be prepared for whichever variation the Argentinian chucks his way.