Winning Ugly is what Brad Gilbert called his book on defying the odds, and tennis’s gods, with a bitches brew of psychology, gamesmanship and sheer bloody-mindedness.
Twenty years on Atlético Madrid are its most brilliant exponents. The 1-0 win against Málaga on Saturday evening provided another spiky example: the only goal came from a deflected shot while their manager Diego Simeone stood in the stands. Earlier Simeone had been sent off after an extra ball was lobbed on to the pitch while Málaga were attacking – by a ball boy whom the Atlético manager had told to throw it on. It was winning ugly par excellence.
It was also Atlético’s 21st clean sheet in La Liga this season, which puts them on course for the second-best record in La Liga history behind Deportivo La Coruña’s 1993-94 side. Given the strength of Real Madrid and Barcelona, and the performance of the other Spanish teams in the Europa League this season, that is a striking achievement.
On the surface Atlético’s defensive approach appears uncomplicated enough. They defend deep – the fact they catch opponents offside only 0.7 times per match, comfortably the lowest rate in the big five leagues, suggests as much. They also pack the centre of the pitch, forcing teams to go wide. Yet there is something more. Simeone has created a spider’s web of a defence so drilled it knows precisely when to shut down passing lanes, squeeze space and strangle dangermen.
Nowhere was that better illustrated than against Barcelona in their Champions League quarter-final home leg. Despite having only 23% of possession, and completing 116 passes to their opponents’ 588, Atlético created more chances and stifled Lionel Messi so completely he did not have a touch in the penalty area. Their 2-0 victory was completely deserved.
But Barcelona’s attacking trident, which may be the greatest of all time, is not alone in finding Atlético’s defence akin to the corridors and court in Kafka’s The Trial. In one sense everything appears familiar. Yet in another it is strangely confusing, as if the world has been knocked off its axis. Atlético have conceded 2.57 shots on target on average, which puts them fourth across Europe this season, behind Bayern Munich, Napoli and Juventus. That is impressive enough. But it is also worth pointing out those shots come from an average of 20.8 yards away. No wonder they have conceded only 16 league goals. Yet it would be wrong to paint Simeone as someone whose systems are rigidly fixed.
As Omar Chaudhuri, the head of intelligence at 21st Club – a consultancy that works with many top European clubs – points out, while Atlético are exceptional at defending their area, this season there have been subtle tweaks. The number of attacking and middle regains of possession has increased from 23.5 per game to 29.2, which indicates a more varied pressing game; interceptions are up 32% and tackles 8%. Their narrow midfield, meanwhile, not only protects the back four but allows Felipe Luís and Juanfran to race down the flanks. Both are near the top of the table of defenders who have created the most chances this season. Another misconception is that Simeone’s teams are a mirror-image of Simeone the player. Sure, there are similarities in the way they fight for every ball in every match. But while Simeone the footballer had more than a touch of the Artful Dodger about him, his team are not especially dirty.
As Chaudhuri points out, this season Atlético have committed 13.7 fouls per game – average for the big five leagues in Europe and below average for La Liga – while only 17% of their fouls are yellow cards, the fifth-lowest in La Liga.
Then there is Antoine Griezmann, whose 29 goals and six assists make him the 11th most prolific striker in the top five European leagues. That is noteworthy, especially given the way Atlético play. The Frenchman has scored or created a goal every 112 minutes in 2015-2016, which – to put it into context – is about the same rate as Alexis Sánchez and Jamie Vardy.
Real Madrid and Barcelona’s strikers might play in the same league, but their numbers are in a different one. Luis Suárez has 53 goals for Barcelona this season – six fewer than Atlético in total. Meanwhile Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema and Suárez all average a goal or assist every 60 to 70 minutes. That is a ridiculous amount of firepower. Yet Atlético are still standing amid the barrage.
What makes Simeone’s achievements more staggering is that Atlético’s annual revenue is £142m, according to Deloitte – not much more than Newcastle or Everton, and less than half that of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. The gap to Real Madrid and Barcelona, who make nearly three times as much, is even more stark.
You would expect the extra money sloshing around the Premier League and Spain’s top two to count and for Atlético to stumble, but that has been said during most of Simeone’s four years in charge. And yet galloping towards May, his team are second in La Liga and about to face Bayern in the Champions League semi-finals. They are underdogs in both competitions and that, you suspect, is how Simeone likes it.
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