Criticism of Diego Simeone's Atlético Methods Rooted in Football Snobbery
The acid reflux of defeat was rising in Jürgen Klopp’s throat, and you could tell he was trying to swallow it down before it went any further. “I realise I am a really bad loser,” he admitted. “They beat us, and we have to accept that. We accept that, of course.”
Given what else the Liverpool manager would say following Liverpool’s 3-2 defeat to Atlético Madrid on Wednesday night, you have to wonder exactly how Klopp defines not accepting it. Shock, disappointment, a sense of smouldering injustice: all these are accepted and acceptable tropes for the manager of a team who have had 34 shots at goal, won the xG 3.52-1.18 on the night, and nevertheless been dumped out of Europe at the first knockout stage.
But there was something else too: a sneering superciliousness, an ambitious pitch for the moral high ground in a competition sponsored by Gazprom. “It doesn’t feel right,” Klopp continued. “I don’t understand, with the quality they have, that they play this kind of football. World-class players defend with two rows of four, and two strikers in front of them. When I see players like Koke, Saúl [Ñíguez], [Marcos] Llorente, they could play proper football. And they stand deep in their own half and they have counterattacks.”
It is worth unpacking what this means in practice. Over eight years under Diego Simeone, Atlético Madrid have cultivated, by painstaking degrees and with ruthless drilling, a system that is not just a part of the club’s identity but the driving force behind the greatest era of success in its history. Klopp is essentially arguing that they should discard all this in favour of a proactive, expansive style that would make it far easier for teams like Liverpool to beat them. It is a position, to be sure, but not one anybody else is obliged to take remotely seriously.
Indeed, when Klopp would later say that “when you see a team like Atlético playing the way they play, that’s the most difficult thing to face”, he was largely undermining his own point. The very reason Atlético play the way they do in these games is because it takes oppositions into places and situations that they would rather not go. “We try to exploit deficiencies in the opponent,” was Simeone’s economical response. “That’s what we do. And we try to win, with all our soul.”
It is tempting to log Klopp’s disapproval as nothing more than sour grapes. There is, after all, a difference between setting your team up to defend and defending well, and giving up 11 shots on target and another two against the woodwork is nobody’s idea of a classic Atlético rearguard.
Meanwhile, this was the first time in three years that Atlético had scored three away from home in the Champions League. It has happened in La Liga only once in the past year. Liverpool’s chagrin will partly stem from the fact that they – and in particular their goalkeeper Adrián – were authors of their own demise. Atlético’s biggest sin was to get lucky.
And yet there is a wider and more ingrained point worth addressing: the underlying disdain with which we talk about teams like Atlético, the idea that to attack is divine and to defend is profane, that attacking football – or more accurately, possession-based attacking football – is somehow purer, more impressive, more beautiful, perhaps even more moral. In a sense this is a debate as old as football itself: to what extent is it a sporting contest in which the sole purpose is to score one more goal than your opponent? And to what extent an art or an entertainment, in which questions of aesthetics and taste and perhaps even politics must necessarily impinge?
On BT Sport, Michael Owen enthusiastically took up the theme, although not in those exact terms. “I don’t think there’s anything genius about setting your team up to defend,” he snapped. “Genius is what Pep Guardiola does. Genius is what Jürgen Klopp does: being expansive, no matter what you face. Loads of men behind the ball? And great players, at that? I respect it, but I don’t think it’s genius.”
Perhaps as a striker, Owen is not overly familiar with the mechanics of organising a defence. But the glibness on display demonstrates a wider assumption: that defensive organisation is essentially easy, or at least a form of unskilled labour. Those who have played under Simeone tell a different story: of the ceaseless focus on tactics and positioning and the interface between movement and space, of the undervalued role of Simeone’s mental conditioning in forging a collective consciousness and deterring lapses in concentration. This may or not stack up with your precise definition of genius. But to deny the weight of intellect behind it smacks either of ignorance or snobbery.
Is it ugly? Is it immoral? Is it anti-football? Simeone himself is certainly no saint as a coach, and often the gamesmanship of his teams is woven into a broader narrative of “dark arts” and iniquity. In a low-scoring sport, perhaps it was inevitable that defensive football would take on an impious ring, but a more recent consequence has been an increasingly fundamentalist view of what football actually is. Since when was football purely about attacking? Since when did goals and dribbles and expression become the sole currency of the game? Since when did having a really good goalkeeper leave the realm of tactics and enter the realm of deus ex machina?
The relationship between form and function, beauty and purpose, has exercised thinkers since the dawn of human history. There is a crude function to what Simeone’s Atlético do, but a beauty too: the co-ordination and choreography of a team, the submission of individual whim to the collective good, the sight of an underdog in the age of the superclubs, taking on the history and financial might of Europe’s giants, and – every so often – tearing them down from their perch. If that is not proper football, then what is?
The Guardian Sport