It is similarly known that a few elite European clubs – including Manchester United and Chelsea – have not pursued initial interest in Simeone because of his football ideology. Diogo Jota was thinking the same when he rejected a move to Atletico in the summer.
That evidence in itself illustrates the evolution of European football, since the classic cast-iron defence used to be a core quality of the level – an elusive trait of a team you couldn’t get near. Along the same lines, a 2-0 lead used to be almost insurmountable once you got to these stages. Atletico were almost a throwback in this regard. The number of spectacular comebacks in the last few years are the most visible indication of change. Big leads have almost meant nothing. Atletico endured one comeback themselves, in 2018-19, when – yes – a 2-0 lead over Juventus was undone by a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick.
Thomas Tuchel has so far managed a defensive record that Simeone would envy, but it hasn’t been based on sitting deep. Quite the opposite. It’s been built into a fluid positional game, the defensive record a by-product rather than the intention. Keeping the ball, or keeping pressing structure right up the field, is how you keep clean sheets now.
Atletico, however, must do more than keep a clean sheet. That is why this game is so weighted, in terms of greater significance for the game. Simeone has to deviate from his usual approach, and go out to score. His previous record doesn’t bode all that well.
In 29 previous Champions League knock-out games, including two finals, there have been 22 occasions when Atletico have only scored one goal or less – nine blanks, and 13 matches where they’ve scored once.
Such minimalism is unlikely to be enough on Wednesday, unless they can again get through on penalties. It is telling that, since Simeone has been Atletico manager, they have been involved in the only two shoot-outs that the two-legged Champions League knockouts have seen.
Another aberration from all this, however, was the last time Atletico played an English side. That was when they knocked out Liverpool at this time last year, in that notorious last game before the Covid crisis brought a halt to football.
It seemed at the time it might have also brought a halt to Atletico’s best chance of the great trophy, precisely because it seemed they had cracked it, and managed to score three times at Anfield.
Even those goals, though, were a consequence of the context rather than any change in tactics. Liverpool were surging forward and bombarding Jan Oblak’s goal, perfectly suiting Simeone’s counter-attacking game. They had all the space in behind that is required to really make it work. Liverpool played into their hands. In the quarter-finals, Leipzig did not, and eliminated them.
Now, at the start of this second leg, Chelsea have no incentive to offer up such space. Atletico are thereby going to have to offer something more. They’re going to have to take the game to Chelsea. That, for all the shifts in Simeone’s approach over the last year, is something they’re not accustomed to in European football.
Suarez does offer something different, as well as the possibility of producing something out of nothing. Felix would be the same – but that is dependent on how he is used. It feels like that issue will be something much of this game rests on.