The linesman raised the offside flag. Diego Costa lowered his head in disappointment. In a haste, Adrian rushed to kick-start play again but Diego kicked the ball towards the goalpost and out of play. Liverpool players protested to the referee Danny Makkelie as the camera zoomed in on Diego. Diego’s actions, signalled what Liverpool were against. A platoon of football soldiers, whose intent was not only to disrupt play but also to frustrate Liverpool as much as possible. Their focus was not to play the ball and please Klopp, it was to defend the 1 to nil lead to the bitter end.
Liverpool players fouled Atletico players severally, in an attempt to win the ball. In each of these fouls, Atletico players overreacted and crowded the referee trying to influence him to caution the suspect. All manner of the dark arts of football, which are synonymous with El-Clasico matches of yester years during Jose and Pep’s eras at the helm of the two Spanish giants were on total show. That aside, it is the tactical discipline to contain Liverpool’s attacks and defend that makes Atletico stand out from the rest of the teams left in the CL. As noted by a frustrated Klopp, “I don’t understand why Atletico play this type of football with the quality they have. They could play proper football. World-class players standing in two blocks of four. They didn’t even have counter-attacks.” The last two sentences capture the tactical discipline shown by Atletico so well. Liverpool made 62 crosses into the Atletico box as it was impossible to break down the block and only 2 hurt Atletico over 94 minutes. In contrast, Ateltico only made 7 crosses. Liverpool also had 16 corners but failed to hurt Atletico. They tried more than 5 different corner routines but failed to score from a single corner.
The organization and sheer concentration to defend corners against a team with the profile of players who can easily hurt you was impressive.
More importantly, to implement an anti-football system to near perfection, a manager needs soldiers who have the appropriate attributes. One outstanding soldier was Jan Oblack. Testament to this, Simeone admitted “Oblak is the best goalkeeper in the world, I have no doubt. Messi resolves games offensively and Oblak does it in goal.” Flattering but well-deserved comments. Oblak was the highest rated player at 8.5/10. He made 9 saves, 2 punches, and 2 high-claims, which not kept Atletico in the fight until they could punch back in extra-time. Thomas Partey was the leader in midfield.
He not only shielded the defence, but ran the defensive by winning 11/16 duels, made 4 clearances, dribbled out of Liverpool’s intense pressure, won tackles and aerial balls, and made 12 recoveries (the most by any player on the pitch). Any capable club without a proper CDM should buy him!
The reality is, Liverpool fought hard and on another day or against a different team, they would have won the tie. However, they faced a team that was up to the task with defensive robustness. Defending is half the job, but sticking to the tactical instructions and system for over 90 minutes is commendable. In the past, Mourinho was the master of anti-football with his 7 principles. At the moment, there is a new master on the block. Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid, the current kings of anti-football!