The most fascinating thing about Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid is their supreme lack of shame.
This is not a team that feels the need to apologize for how they go about their business, even when that business is ugly, simple, utilitarian, even regressive. This is not a team that worries about how they look, or even how many goals they score, as long as it is one more than their opponent. Sometimes they don’t even need to do that.
Such was the case in Atleti’s Round of 16 Champions League triumph over PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday night. The Spanish side was the more attacking of the pair, but that only goes so far when the character of Simeone’s team embodies a commitment to defensive football that overshadows nearly everything else his team does. Atleti, at their very core, are a team that chooses to prioritize a tactical flexibility designed to stymie the opposition. Atletico Madrid isn’t so much “goal shy” as they are focused on other things.
Hence the drama of a penalty shootout at the Estadio Vicente Calderon, won 8-7 by the home team to put them into the quarterfinals of the tournament. Maybe there was an element of luck, or maybe Atleti’s superior mentality showed through. Certainly Simeone himself projects an image of immense confidence that filters down to his players. When Fernando Torres plays large role in the fortunes of the team and that fact remains true, it’s a testament to just how pervasive Simeone’s influence is.
Simeone himself lauded the “belief” of his players in their triumph on penalties. Fullback Juanfran talked about the team’s “hunger” and “heart”, as conveyed to them by their coach. Atleti’s magic lies in their ability to spin what they do—holding teams down first, second, and third before ever going for goal—into a heroic effort built on sheer collective will. They aren’t ashamed of how they win, but they do buy into abstract notions of wanting it more.
Let’s puncture that thought right there. Atletico Madrid don’t want to win any more than PSV or anyone else—or if they do, such a thing has almost no bearing on who does actually win. At the highest levels, talent and organization are what separate teams, not the immeasurable ideas of desire or heart. Atleti’s talent may pale in comparison to that of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and a few other European powers, but when put up against the other 99%, Simeone is rich with players of remarkable quality. The built-in advantages he has don’t guarantee victory, even against the lesser lights of La Liga, but it would be ridiculous not to point them out.
That said, it is the organization of Simeone’s teams still surprises to this day, even after he’s already secured a La Liga title and an appearance in the Champions League final. For all of Atleti’s success, it’s still remarkable that no one can count them out against anyone. They aren’t one of the favourites in the Champions League this year by any stretch, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be shocked to look up come May and see them on the field at the San Siro.
Simeone actually sells himself short by pointing to “belief” as the reason his team succeeds. Perhaps in the context of a penalty shootout it makes sense, but the Atletico Madrid manager is deliberately downplaying his team’s incredible tactical discipline. Simeone may have a unique ability to get his players to buy into his system, but that only matters because the system he employs is effective. “Belief” as the driving force is a fallacy.
Who else in Europe could play 210 minutes of goalless football against a second tier opponent and come out smelling so lovely on the other side? In a world that remains entranced by notions of beautiful soccer gifted upon the masses by a handful of geniuses, Simeone and Atleti stand out as a bastion of something much less pretentious. We give PSV credit for pushing Atleti to the brink, but the narrative always flips to lauding the Spanish side for their ability to keep clean sheet after clean sheet.
Think about that: A Spanish club, succeeding through defense, at a time when the vision of the Spanish game is one of gorgeous, intricate attacking football. Simeone’s team is unique in that context as well; instead of accusing it of perpetuating “anti-football”, the football world nods with respect.
Maybe it’s that lack of shame, devoid of any conceit. No apologies are given, but neither does Atleti or their coach put us off with an attitude of superiority. We have come to respect Atletico Madrid for what they do and how they do it. It’s not always pretty, and that’s okay.