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UCL Preview: Atlético Madrid vs Liverpool

A force that cannot be stopped. An object that cannot be moved. If only there was a saying that could accurately summarise what this match promises to be.

While they both play at seemingly opposite ends of the footballing-style spectrum, i.e. “heavy metal scoring” vs defend defend defend, Liverpool and Atlético Madrid share many similarities. They both play with an intensity that is hard to match, their managers inspire fierce loyalty, and they have both come second best more times than they would care to remember. But otherwise these are two drastically contrasting outfits that could have found their match in each other.

Under Diego Simeone, Atlético Madrid have managed to develop a reputation for being resilient, relentless and robust. Despite not being able to compete financially with Barcelona and Real Madrid (specifically in terms of their wage bill), Simeone has consistently got his team into dangerous positions, making almost every penny spent work to its maximum. His ability to command respect with a cult-like leadership has resulted in a more than impressive trophy haul. With a relatively modest spend, El Cholo has earned the club a La Liga trophy, a Copa Del Rey, two European Supercups and two Europa League trophies. In addition to this, he has also reached two Champions League finals, taking Real Madrid to a full 120 minutes in both. Unfortunately for him, he lost the first final 4–1 and his second on penalties. If there is anything to take away from these matches, though, it is that Atléti can go toe-to-toe with the biggest names in football and not be totally out of their depth.

Their current La Liga campaign has been tumultuous, though. Through no fault of their own (if we want to go into the legal side of things, part of the struggles could potentially be pinned on Barcelona), they have had several key players leave in quick succession. In three seasons, Atlético have lost Yannick Carrasco (who has since rejoined), Sime Vrsaljko, Fernando Torres, Gabi, his successor Rodri, Diego Godin, Juanfran, Filipe Luis and their star forward Antoine Griezmann. To suggest that this team are going through a transitional period would be an understatement – it would be a surprise if their domestic campaign wasn’t bumpy.

Those that have been brought in in place of these departures have experienced a mixed spell, but who could all develop into key players in a team, providing they buy into what El Cholo is selling them.

In arguably the most defensive team going, it is perhaps a surprise that two of the most noteworthy people to highlight are forwards. João Felix and Thomas Lemar were purchased for a combined price of €196 million. Both young and both having displayed moments of brilliance before, they have struggled in a set up that is not strictly designed for either of them. Felix, at 20 years old, is seen to be the direct replacement of Antoine Griezmann. A second-striker from Portugal, he has performed very well providing the €126 million price tag is slightly ignored. Griezmann himself took some time to settle in at Atléti so to say that Felix is already a bust would be short sighted. Instead, Atlético will be looking at their investment as exactly that, an investment in a player who will only get better with time.

Thomas Lemar, on the other hand, has struggled and could well be on his way out. While statistics often fail to show the whole story, he has failed to score or register an assist this season. But, much like former and now present winger Yannick Carrasco before him, a conventional winger will rarely flourish in a system built for holding on, rather than one for breaking through. On that note, Simeone would probably find more comfort in leaving Lemar out, in spite of his €70 million transfer fee, instead opting for greater defensive discipline in the wide areas Liverpool will be looking to exploit.

It is this defensive discipline exhibited by Atlético that has garnered their reputation for being so difficult to break down. And it is not just the defenders that put in their work; the midfielders, whichever combination offered, all play their part. And it is because of this that Simeone has regularly found great success by doing away with the speedy wing-play, so prevalent in Europe, and instead typically deploys a 4 man midfield, often comprised of 4 separate central midfielders. Players such as Koké and Saul Ñiguez are just as often played centrally as they are out wide. This versatility only goes to further highlight the fierce loyalty that Simeone is able to command: players are expected to give 100% no matter what position they are played — to even be on the pitch at all is a privilege. Ñiguez, for example, has found himself filling in at left back a number of times this season. His and Koké’s natural tenacity and box-to-box abilities mean that at any one point, Atlético’s shape can alter without missing a step. Saying this, Simeone has been quite rigid tactically throughout his time in charge.

But in this rigidity, Simeone has found a system that works for him: if you can’t win, don’t lose. In stark contrast to some teams in the competition, Atlético’s ability to keep a clean sheet far outweighs their ability to score: they have kept 14 clean sheets in 31 games this season with 5 of these games ending 0–0, in no small part due to the tireless and impenetrable efforts of Jan Oblak. Oblak, boasts the impressive record of having kept 131 clean sheets since his arrival in Madrid, having only let in 160 goals (it was only until recently that Oblak had more clean sheets than goals conceded). Over two legs, they could prove to be a very difficult team to beat. But if there is one team to do it, it may well be Liverpool.

This fixture last took place 10 years ago. Both teams were in the Europa League, both finished their seasons in the upper half of their respective mid-tables and both teams looked quite different to how they do now. Atléti have always had quality forwards in their squad but finishing their 2009/10 season with a negative goal difference is so far from what would happen now. As for Liverpool, three years removed from their last Champions League final, the team looked to be missing something. They had Fernando Torres but a knee injury kept him out of the fixture against his former club. Dirk Kuyt was a great squad player, capable of playing just about anywhere with consistent enthusiasm. But outside of this, the team was drifting further from the limelight and European finals would become a distant memory. A team that was 15 minutes from the Europa League final instead found themselves on course for a lacklustre period of management under Roy Hodgson.

Fast forward 10 years, Liverpool are — almost objectively — the strongest team in the world. Currently unbeaten in the Premier League, winners of last year’s Champions League campaign and boasting a squad so balanced that the lack of transfer activity this season has barely been an issue. But how has this happened? Ultimately, much like their last 16 opponents, Liverpool have gone through a rebuild but done so over a longer period than just this summer window.

When Brendan Rodgers was relieved of his duties, Jürgen Klopp, formerly of Borussia Dortmund, arrived and quickly got fans excited about what was coming. An otherwise fairly unremarkable squad, Klopp had some promising players to work with, notably Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho but also the less “glamorous” players such as James Milner and Jordan Henderson. His first season with the club saw them reach the Europa League final, knocking out rivals Manchester United and Klopp’s former club Dortmund. An up and down league campaign had Liverpool finish 8th but with a sign of promise. The following season, a 4th place finish was made possible thanks to the reinforcement of players such Sadio Mané, Georginio Wijnaldum and Joël Matip — three players that would only get stronger and more important for Klopp’s side. The following season, defensive worries were alleviated thanks to the, then, record signing of Virgil van Dijk, along with goalscorer extraordinaire Mohamed Salah. In addition to these big money moves (but certainly necessary moves) Klopp would no longer have to settle for playing the work-horse of James Milner out of position at left-back, as the relentless Andrew Robertson arrived from Hull City for a very economic £9 million. While Liverpool spent money, you cannot deny that they also spent smartly.

Within less than three years, Liverpool had gone from deploying Adam Lallana as a false 9 to having one of the most versatile, potent and unpredictable front lines in modern football. And the same was done in the defensive areas as well. For any talk of Liverpool “buying the league” (they currently stand 22 points clear from second place Manchester City) the spending on a rebuild was necessary and done so in a manner that appears to be entirely sustainable. Despite the record breaking fees for Van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson (almost entirely offset by the £142 million sale of Philippe Coutinho), Liverpool have also been gifted talented youngsters from their own academy. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez (technically part of Charlton’s set-up but he arrived at Liverpool at 18) are mainstays in the starting eleven and seem to only get better with each outing. Much like their attacking trident, Liverpool’s rebuild was swift, well thought out and, in a way, ruthless. After identifying weak spots, they struck.

Undefeated in the Premier League and without showing any signs of stopping, Liverpool have been beaten once this season… well, twice if you include the EFL trophy defeat to Aston Villa — a 5–0 victory that will astound historians for decades to come. Against Napoli in the first game of their title defence, Liverpool fell short by the measure of 2 goals. This was in September of 2019; Napoli have since sacked their manager while Liverpool have gone from strength to strength. The only thing that Liverpool should be concerned about is that Napoli, again, took points from them again.

The team that faced Liverpool that day were a defensively rigid outfit that played a compact and fluid 4–4–2. It would be less than ideal for them if they were to face another team like this any time soon.

There is every chance that Liverpool have met their match but to draw a winner from this fixture would be impossible. For every positive that Liverpool have in their attack, Atlético will defend until the death. Liverpool are unlikely to concede to Atlético, but with Simeone as their manager, they will not go down without a fight.

via Liverpool FC

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