Heading into yesterday’s second leg of their round of 16 matchup against Juventus, Atlético Madrid looked like solid favorites to progress to the quarterfinals, or at least as solid as any team could be going up against the Europe’s most complete team, featuring the best Champions League player ever. Not only did the Spanish side win 2-0 at home in the first leg, but they did it in such dominating fashion that a similar result in Turin wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. The prior match was such a comprehensive beatdown that it inspired this glorious Diego Simeone celebration, an image that felt like it would be this tie’s enduring one.
And yet a win wasn’t even necessary. All that the historically defensively stout Atlético had to do was not concede two goals, and certainly not three.
Honestly, the highlights and the final score line (Juventus 3, Atlético 0) almost flatter Atleti. From the start of the match, Simeone’s men were set up in an even tighter defensive turtle stance than usual. In a way, this was understandable. All Atlético had to do to advance was either prevent a deluge of Juventus goals or score one of their own on the counter to clinch a spot in the quarterfinals. This is nothing new for Atlético. Under Simeone, the club has enjoyed its greatest ever period of success by being the most disciplined and suffocating defensive unit in the world.
In an era of European soccer defined by attacking, attackers, possession, and offensive movement, Simeone’s Atlético have been proud outliers. Their soccer has been a determinedly defensive one, taking the deep and compact blueprint masterminded by José Mourinho and squeezing it into something even tighter and less adventurous. This anachronistic style of play has allowed Atleti to compete with and often best many of the continent’s bigger, richer, and more heterodox teams, and for that it and Simeone deserve all the credit in the world. But to fight against time is to, eventually, lose, and without the perfect pieces needed to orchestrate his revanchist plots, Simeone and Atlético were always going to lose sooner or later if they didn’t adapt.
Tuesday night was the scene of that inevitable loss. Atlético, missing crucial defense-stiffening players like Thomas Partey and Filipe Luís and not getting anything from their creative guys, were inept on both sides of the ball. The Spanish side managed just five total shots all game, none of them on target, and only one coming from inside the box. And somehow that still understates how little Atlético wanted to attack. Atlético were set up to defend for 90 minutes without players equipped to do so, much less against Cristiano Ronaldo, and so they suffered.
Even with their obvious defensive shortcomings, it’s hard to overlook the fact that all Atlético had to do was score a single goal. They had scored two at the Metropolitano, probably deserved a third via Álvaro Morata’s sketchily disallowed goal, and easily could’ve scored a couple other times during their many free jaunts through the Juve defense. So, what happened? How did Juventus get three more goals than Atlético had shots on target?
The set-up didn’t help; there were instances were Antoine Griezmann would receive the ball in his usual right striker/right winger hybrid position and have absolutely no one to work with before the black-and-white-clad Juventus horde descended upon him. Midfielders Saúl Ñíguez and Koke, Atleti’s chief creators, were awful. Just look at these pass charts and their limp sideways lines:
Considering this was a team-wide shitting of the bed, it feels mean to pick on one specific Atlético player, but Thomas Lemar probably deserves it. You may remember Lemar being linked to Liverpool and Arsenal during the hype-fueled Monaco fire sale of 2017, but he ended up with a (relatively) quiet move to Atlético this past summer for a whopping €60 million.
The gifted Frenchman was supposed to inject Atlético with something they’ve searched long and hard (and expensively) for and yet still hadn’t found: a speedy, creative, direct player to put on the opposite side of Griezmann and unlock Atleti’s attacks. Instead, in the biggest game of his Atlético career, Lemar was the worst player on the pitch:
Lemar managed no shots, no passes into the box, and lost three of the five take-ons he attempted. He provided no wide release valves for the Atlético midfield, either. Even worse, he was the clear weak point of what needed to be an impenetrable defensive wall, with Juventus repeatedly abusing his poor positioning and intensity. Rather than coming up big in the biggest game of the season, Lemar was just sort of out there taking up space. After what has been a disappointing debut season in Spain, perhaps it’s already time to admit that, as proved the case with Vitolo and Gaitán and Carrasco and Cerci, Atlético has swung and missed once again in an effort to fill Arda Turan’s shoes.
The only surprise when Simeone finally yanked Lemar for Ángel Correa in the 57th minute was how long that much-needed change took to make. And while that was too little, too late, Correa did do his best to create a winning chance for Atlético: in the 94th minute, he was brought down in the Juventus box by Giorgio Chiellini doing one of the most shameless pieces of play-acting that you will ever see in a top match between top teams:
VAR should have maybe caught that and given a penalty for Atlético, but as we’ve discussed in this space, VAR isn’t perfect. At least this can give Atlético fans and the team itself something to latch onto, something less depressing than the truth: Atlético came in with a plan of all-out defense that was never going to work, and Juventus (well, really, Ronaldo) made them pay dearly.
Atlético have now lost to a Ronaldo-led team the last five times that they have played in the Champions League knockout round. While they shut down the greatest scorer in competition history in the first leg with a more attacking, more aggressive style of counter-pressing, they fell victim to a Ronaldo hat trick by reverting to a familiar playing style that, while tried and true in the past, is no longer effective in the biggest matches against the best clubs.
The cracks in Atlético’s approach started showing last season—when Roma and Chelsea finished above them in the group stage of the Champions League (although Atlético did go on to win the Europa League)—and even in this year’s group stage, when Borussia Dortmund took the Spanish side behind the woodshed with a comprehensive 4-0 victory that featured similarly toothless Atlético attacking.
It’s long felt from the outside that Atlético would need to adapt to a more proactive style if they were to continue their miraculous run of outsized success. After yesterday’s game, Atlético must finally realize that, too.