There was a moment in Atlético Madrid’s win over Manchester United when combative midfielder Rodrigo de Paul leathered the ball high, high into the floodlit, northern sky. Resembling a Sunday league hoof rather than an exquisite Champions League-quality pass, it hung there for a few seconds. Atletico’s players and vociferous fans wanted it to stay, while their frustrated opponents, desperate to overturn a one-goal home deficit, wanted it to drop soon, with time running out.
It wasn’t pretty. Instead, it was pretty comic; the elite game reduced to something archaic—a blunt, no-nonsense act. A kick for territory, for power, for victory. Whatever the interpretation, it was effective, helping complete the job, as the seconds ticked towards a precious European win. Renan Lodi’s goal means the Spanish champion reaches the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier competition and will quietly fancy itself as the business end of the tournament approaches.
The way Atlético achieves success either annoys or captures the imagination, depending on who you ask. For some, deploying dark arts, such as cynical fouls and time-wasting, is ignoble, maybe even anti-soccer. For others, they are savvy and necessary to achieve honors. One thing is clear; Atlético uses them to the nth degree under manager Diego Simeone.
It raises a relevant debate as to how the game should be. The idea has often sparked debate in Brazilian soccer circles, for example. The question is on what deserves more attention—winning ugly or playing with flair. Curiously, the capital club—for all the skilled, expensive players and infrastructure in place—has brought industrious one-nil wins into vogue, with cunning, destructive tactics at the center. There are some comparisons with some defensively-rooted Italian sides of the past, except Simeone’s men better resemble warriors, running into the turf, winning through suffering. They call it Cholísmo, named after the boss himself, and it was there in all its glory at Old Trafford.
All this comes with a paradox. Atlético’s modern stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, does not match its approach to games. Instead of free-flowing soccer to befit its magnificent arena, fans often watch the team labor across the line. Amid all the investment, whether on infrastructure or players, the coach, rallying his troops from the sidelines, has stayed. Fittingly dressed in a black shirt and tie, Simeone has led Atlético for over a decade, and in recent times he has darkened the mood at Liverpool and now United.
Financially, it has been a largely effective operation too. Reaching the quarter-finals means the club should receive around €10.6 million ($11.5 million). More importantly, Simeone’s sporting vision has led to multiple Champions League successes during his tenure and the rewards that come with it, not to mention the La Liga title, which it has won twice under his reign. Investment has made a difference, but these represent achievements for a side that was previously far away from challenging at the very top. La Liga’s latest release on club salary limits suggests the Madrid side is in relatively good stead, with €161,221 ($177,975) allocated compared to Barcelona, in the negative with -€144,353 (-$158,458).
Atlético is committed to frustrating teams, even with João Félix and Antoine Griezmann in its ranks. The two attacking players, joyous to watch at times, have almost cost a combined €200 million ($220 million) in transfer fees, even though Atlético recouped over half that amount for Griezmann—on loan from Barcelona—departed for the Catalans. Money notwithstanding, the pair leave you wanting something more, a moment of supreme skill or vision to offset the team’s rugged approach. Some frustration comes from the fact that, despite this talent, Atlético is staunchly conservative when it needs results, with memorable moments occurring only in fits and starts.
From all the La Liga representatives involved in European competition, Atlético is possibly the most divisive. After the match at Old Trafford, United’s former Atlético goalkeeper David de Gea recognized his team’s support and extended some frustration towards opposition fans, suggesting they may have behaved as such in similarly adverse circumstances (Spanish).
Combined with the on-field approach, Atlético does not radiate universal likability, despite living in the shadows of Barcelona and Real Madrid for some time until now. Villarreal, meanwhile, has entered the mix after winning the Europa League, meaning Spain now has a four-pronged attack if you include Barcelona in that mix.
As for whether it can make a gigantic leap and win a first-ever Champions League trophy, it will be relishing its present situation. Defending the La Liga title has not played into its hands, and the result has been a disjointed, uncharacteristically weak display in La Liga this campaign. It is best with its backs against the wall, branded as an outsider. Equally, how it progresses will not be a concern, as long as it snatches results.