There is no denying that Atletico Madrid’s approach to their Champions League quarterfinal first leg was a mistake. A 1-0 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad last Tuesday was far from ideal as the reigning La Liga champions failed to produce a single chance on goal. As a result, no one is seemed to be convinced that they can turn this tie come Wednesday during the second leg at the Wanda Metropolitano (3 p.m. ET | Paramount+).
Unsurprisingly, Atleti finished with 0.00 expected goals since they did not record a single shot, which is the wrong kind of record to set. How rare was that? Prior to last week, Atletico Madrid have not once been shut out in xG since Opta began tracking the stat back in 2008. They regularly had all 11 players behind the ball but could not get the result they wanted because City prevented Diego Simeone’s attack from functioning properly in what proved to be, tactically, his most challenging match of the season.
It’s obvious that the approach will be different at home, but if they miss the mark again with whatever changes they make, they’ll simply be reduced to spectators the rest of the way and see their European dream elude them once again. If they can come out with the edge they needed in the first leg, while looking to Liverpool’s performance against City over the weekend as guidance, then they can certainly pull of something that looks improbable.
Atleti are not a team that possess the ball much. In fact, before their loss to Man City and following it up with another defeat to Mallorca over the weekend, Atleti had gone eight consecutive games without winning the possession battle despite doing undefeated over that span. They are perfectly comfortable not having the ball because their game revolves around their press and pouncing on counterattacks. You can find success against the Manchester Uniteds of the world in the round of 16 or on your typical league affair against the likes of Cadiz, Levante and others. But against a team that likes to kill the game with a massive possession rate like Manchester City, a team that has aspirations of winning the title and a squad that has an embarrassment of riches, you probably don’t stand a chance sitting back and waiting to capitalize off mistakes.
Under Simeone, Atleti have been known for their suffocating pressure, elite defensive shape and execution. Their ability year in and year out to slay the biggest giants in Europe with well-time goals is uncanny. They’ve done it to Liverpool, Bayern Munich and plenty of others with Simeone having two UCL final appearances and a pair of Europa and La Liga titles to his name. In the first leg, the first-ever meeting between City and Atleti, they showed the type of defensive prowess that’s built into the DNA of Simeone’s teams, not conceding until the 70th minute and doing it without star center back Jose Maria Gimenez. Atleti held City to their third-lowest xG of the season at 1.02. The issues came in attack as it was a predictable, inefficient display that was far from the Colchonero way. Much too often it was either Joao Felix or Antoine Griezmann in no-man’s land, surrounded by sky-blue shirts and with the only option being to try and draw a foul.
They will have to escape their comfort zone on Wednesday and take more risks than usual if they are to keep their European dream going. It’s unlikely, especially with the personnel, that they will be able to greatly increase their possession, and the expectation will be for Manchester City to score. But to stand a puncher’s chance against City, they are going to need a completely different approach this match — perhaps by playing three in attack.
First, they must look at what Liverpool did in the 2-2 draw at City on Sunday. Sure, the Liverpool squad is deeper and talented, but having three in attack to stretch the backline is a must, and we saw how the Reds managed to capitalize with Mohamed Salah’s stellar assist to Sadio Mane:
The City defense will aim to improve upon its issues demonstrated against Liverpool, but just one moment can change this. Atleti have to be ready, quick to move the ball into space and show the quality they have in attack. Having Luis Suarez as the target man probably isn’t the answer as it was Liverpool’s speed on that goal that really helped them. But getting Angel Correa into the starting XI on the left and then Joao Felix on the right with Griezmann in the middle may give them a shot.
Losing this game 1-0 is the same as losing 2-0, which means that if you are already losing, then conceding again isn’t going to matter if you don’t go for it. Atleti, out of any team, have the ability to turn this around and pull off a shocker, but expect City to score. That means at least two goals will likely be need to have any opportunity of advancing, and getting bodies forward while leaving the defense thin is what it will take.
The first 15 minutes of this match will paint the picture for us in terms of what kind of version of Atleti we will get. They need to rediscover their aggression, believe in their defense with less numbers and simply get more men into attacking situation as early as possible.
Otherwise, much like the first leg, they’ll have no chance.
Wednesday’s broadcast schedule
UEFA Champions League Today, 2 p.m. ET, CBS and Paramount+
Liverpool vs. Benfica, 3 p.m. ET, CBS and Paramount+
Atletico Madrid vs. Manchester City, 3 p.m. ET, Paramount+
UEFA Champions League Post-Match Show, 5 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network and Paramount+