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Playing Against Atlético In Madrid Is Hell

Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno (Getty Images)

It’s not profound analysis to say Atlético Madrid are good defensively, but Bayer Leverkusen were reminded of the one inexorable truth of soccer in the teams’ Champions League match on Tuesday: playing an away match against the Colchoneros fucking sucks.

While Atlético’s road games are often painful watches for neutrals—an already hyper-defensive team usually turtles up even more when outside of Madrid—playing as the away team against them is much worse. In soccer, as in most sports, you are at a disadvantage on the road, and most teams usually try to play a more conservative style to counteract the crowd energy. You can’t really do that against Atlético, because you will never beat them in a defensive showdown, so the best you can do is try to create chances when and where you can.

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Leverkusen, with all their attack firepower in the form of Kai Havertz, Karim Bellarabi, and Kevin Volland, did their best to get shots off, but it was pretty much for naught. The German side finished with a respectable 12 shots, which on paper seems pretty good. However, a closer look reveals that it, uh, was not pretty good: just one of those shots was on target, and the shot chart is downright bleak, with no shots closer than the penalty spot and the one on target coming from way outside the box:

If you prefer xG, neither team managed to get to even one expected goal, with Leverkusen turning those 12 shots into a whopping 0.54 xG:

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Despite being having 60 percent of the possession, Leverkusen just could not actually do anything to threaten Jan Oblak’s goal. Atlético did what Atlético do under Diego Simeone: they played flawless defense, even after starting center back José María Giménez had to be subbed out due to injury, and capitalized on their one big chance. In this case, that came from Álvaro Morata, who slotted a zinger of a header past Leverkusen goalie Lukáš Hrádecký:

Atlético have conceded only five goals in nine La Liga matches this season, tied for the fewest in the league. The only away team to have any sort of success in Madrid was Juventus in the Champions League, when they scored two goals as Atlético opened up a bit going for the win. Aside from those two goals, Atlético has been brutally effective at frustrating visitors so far this season.

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Notwithstanding its enduring defensive impenetrability, this Atlético team is far from great. Mostly, this is because of their inability to create and score goals of their own as they’ve struggled finding a best way forward in the post–Antoine Griezmann world. But given the nature of the Champions League knockout rounds and of the team itself, Atlético should always be in contention in Europe simply by virtue of how good they are at grinding out painful games at home. This has been their story for the entirety of this past half-decade, and as Leverkusen found out, any slippages they’ve had this season have not made Atlético any easier to beat.

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