Atletico Madrid are the worst possible opponents for Leicester

Words By Conor Kelly
April 10, 2017
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Leicester City’s Champions League adventure continues this week, and for the second tie in succession, they will face a Spanish side. Sevilla were dispatched on a famous night at the King Power Stadium in March, and on Wednesday, Atletico Madrid provide the opposition.

Both clubs have Argentinian coaches in the dugout, but that’s where the similarities end. Jorge Sampaoli and Diego Simeone have starkly different ideas on the game. In order to understand why this tie will be a different proposition for the Premier League champions, it’s worth travelling back in time and revisiting the two schools of Argentinian football – Menottisme and Bilardisme.

In the 1970s, Argentina was ruled by Jorge Rafael Videla’s brutal military dictatorship. Ironically, while the country’s leadership was oppressive, the national football team was led by a self-professed socialist. Cesar Luis Menotti was a rebellious figure, sporting long hair and chain smoking on the sideline. His footballing philosophy was very much in keeping with his political beliefs.

“There’s a right-wing football and a left-wing football. Right-wing football wants to suggest that life is struggle,” he hypothesised. “It demands sacrifices. We have to become of steel and win by any method… obey and function, that’s what those with power want from the players.”

Menotti felt that football was an art form and adopted the 4-3-3 system synonymous with the Netherlands team that dismantled Argentina in the 1974 World Cup. Four years later on home soil, he led them to their first World Cup, defeating the Dutch in the final. “You can lose a game, but what you cannot lose is the dignity earned by playing good football.”

If Argentina’s first World Cup was secured in thrilling fashion, the second in 1986 was centred on Diego Maradona’s genius, but led by Menotti’s antithesis, Carlos Bilardo. Bilardo believed that football was about winning and nothing else. Maradona himself even suggested that the people of Argentina watched their first match of the tournament “with their eyes half-closed.”

His methods were undeniably effective though and they followed up success in 1986 by reaching the final against eventual winners West Germany in 1990. That showpiece in Rome is largely remembered as the worst World Cup final in history – marred by cynical fouling and turgid football – but the results were indisputably effective.

Jorge Sampaoli cites Marcelo Bielsa as his main coaching inspiration and he certainly falls more into the Menotti category. The 57 year-old demands high pressing, possession and slick interchanging, and won’t betray his principals. At the 2014 World Cup, his Chile team were widely heralded for the speed and style of their play.

That approach saw Sevilla challenging La Liga giants Barcelona and Real Madrid earlier in the season, but arguably cost them against Leicester in the previous round when the English sat deep and hit them on the break. Any analysis from their game’s over the last eighteen months would show up the folly in Sevilla’s game-plan, but Sampaoli refused to deviate from his principles.

Diego Simeone has no such ideological compulsions. The Atletico manager subscribes to the Bilardo school of victory at all costs. In fact, he worked under Bilardo in the infancy of his international career, thus explaining his inherent pragmatism. That was evident when he led Atletico to the La Liga title against the odds and reached two Champions League finals.

Stylistically, there are similarities between the two teams, which sets up a potentially attritional spectacle in Wednesday’s quarter-final. Although Atletico’s squad obviously contains more quality than Leicester’s, Simeone won’t be averse to ceding territory and the ball in order to progress. As they demonstrated against Bayer Leverkusen, if Leicester do stray from their plan and play expansively, Atletico will outgun them. They can beat you in an arm wrestle and also win a free-for-all.

Simeone has already initiated the mind games and pitched his side as underdogs. “This is a team that was able to win the English league. We know that the game will be very tough against a rival that is similar to us.

We also know that we are not facing the same team that went into the knockout draw.”

Craig Shakespeare will be aware that their opposition are stacked with internationals and class footballers, but also that Atletico are battle hardened and possess an edge. They are miserly at the back and fearsome going forward, and up front they have a genuine world class match-winner in Antoine Griezmann.

Leicester have the advantage of the second leg on home soil and will fancy their chances if the tie is still in the balance with 90 minutes to go. Atletico Madrid are a different beast to Sevilla though. Real Madrid are the only team to eliminate Los Colchoneros from the Champions League in the past three years and Simeone’s record in knockout competition is exceptional. They won’t be encountering an ideologue, they’ll be facing the modern exponent of Bilardisme.

The reality is, if Simeone was chopping a tree down, he would happily use a knife if he felt it would get the job done.

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