We have a plan. Let’s call it Plan D.
Not because three previous plans have flopped. It’s an ace up the sleeve, to be used against stronger sides more resilient to counterattacks — which is our trademark style of play.
Supporters build hope and take pride in seeing how the team commanded by Simeone is outgrowing its talent areas, improving its skill set and finding ways to compete against all types of opponents.
The team does have its shortcomings and limitations of course. That’s easy enough for anyone to see. Only Arda Turan, Óliver, and Koke (playing in a different position to the one he currently occupies) can bring short passing and possession style of play aboard.
It is a style Atlético Madrid will use on certain occasions, but isn’t its strongest weapon. Atleti normally employ a counterattacking style in away games, while at home they apply high defensive pressure, deep in the opponents own field to provoke a turnover, or steal the ball close to goal (as we were lucky to see in the last Liga match versus Rayo).
The outfit also knows how to sit back and wait on the prowl deep in our own half, as we saw on Wednesday. This is not a case of Trapattoni-like quests for goalless deadlocks, imitating the Italian catenaccio. This so-called “Plan D” fights the opponent’s dominance with equally effective skills: deep defence, distribution of defensive pressure, Spartan discipline in covering and assisting in defence, and a powerful and speedy drive when in possession of the ball. The four D’s that transcend a simple deadlock approach.
This style has not been very frequently seen during Simeone’s tenure, and it has not always gone as planned, but we have seen it in three big finals: UEFA Super Cup, the Copa del Rey Final, and the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup.
All three matches shared similar features:
- A deep defensive fall-back. The ball is intentionally yielded to the opponent. The defence is set very narrowly in their own field, in a series of trench-like lines. This is done to lure the opponent far from their own half.
- Passing lines are blockaded to avoid one-touch pass rhythm and disrupt and obstruct the opponents’ most talented midfielders from passing to the sides.
- Engaging in high pressure close to the sidelines to force turnovers in the transitions from defence to offence.
- Being in better physical shape than the opponent. In preseason, this is easier to carry out with special regimens, but is possible even during the season, like the special fitness plan “Profe” Ortega set up in April-May for the Copa del Rey final.
- Using counterattacks as the principal striking weapon in matches where the opponent is deep in the opposition half, trying to maximise opportunities to shoot on the run. The fullbacks (Filipe and Juanfran), the wide midfielders (Arda Turan and Koke), and even the forwards (especially Diego Costa), are expected to drive the ball rather than pass it and seek on-the-run shots.
- Giving set pieces a central role, where Koke is turning into a key player and top assistant. Centre backs are key to set pieces, and both Miranda and Godín have very much to say in the offensive output of the team.
This was clearly the set-up “Cholo” laid out in the three finals against teams where Atleti was at a clear disadvantage. We will not take into consideration the Bucharest final, where Atleti was, for once, the overall favourite side (and they lived up to it, beating Athletic fair and square in every aspect of the game over the course of the entire match).
We have witnessed two and a half finals (the upcoming Wednesday completes three) where Atleti played the underdog, the friendly wannabe whose sole prize was to play in a final against three of the best teams in the world, Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Barcelona.
Fortunately enough, we saw the same puzzled looks on all our opponents’ faces. Teams that deemed themselves far above our level, that thought Atlético would be a ragdoll to be tossed around for 90 minutes, were either crushed or seriously knocked around by Atleti’s stunning effectiveness in these matches.
In the first leg of the Super Sup against Barcelona, we all saw our side’s impressive physical display, with military-like tactical discipline when defending. We saw the high-speed counterattacks that left Barça out of breath more than a time or two. Was the Catalonian outfit just complacent with past victories and historical statistics, and were caught off guard? Will they have an antidote against our seemingly infallible secret weapon, this plan D? Or will they turn on the sprinklers (as Xavi seems so fixated on pitch moisture), and think that wet grass will do the trick?
We must admit that the draw leaves things up in the air, but we have been here before, we have done this, we now know this path over thin ice leads to victory. Let’s hope that we can count on that surplus of motivation, spirit, and determination that “Cholo” brings to the table.
The challenge is complicated, we have less firepower upfront this season — not much less, but we are still less lethal than before. On the other hand, our team depth is very much improved. Some team members have stepped up to the plate, and have gone from good to key players (Miranda, Diego Costa, and Koke, for example).
But the one factor that sets apart the present final from those of the past is respect. We earned it. Every single side we face now has respect for us. No easy wins against Atlético. Those days are long over. If anyone wants to snatch this Cup from our grasp, they will need to fight for every ball, every inch, every second of the game. The famous Simeone Effect.
The other day I was pondering why football was so different from other sports like handball, basketball, or American football, in the way supporters deeply appreciate and take pride in defensive talent, and where a solid defence is an absolute must for any winning team. We have all seen the crowd go nuts, cheering and waving that iconic sport rebus of a capital D and a fence when it is time to take a stand and say: “No sir. Not on my watch.”
Well I say, loud and clear, in the land of tiki-taka, that in Cholo I trust. I have never been to Neptuno so many times like I have been these last three years, so bring it on Barça, and D-Fence!