Diego Simeone was working in Argentina in the early years of his coaching career when he requested to attend some training sessions in Barcelona under the leadership of Pep Guardiola.
Barcelona was a major club in world football, revolutionizing the game between 2008–12 with their “tiki-taka” passing style, which was adored by Guardiola and mastered by the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández.
It wasn’t for Simone though.
“We talked,” said Guardiola, “and he said to me, ‘I don’t like it. I don’t feel it.'”
A combative and hard-working midfielder as a player, Simeone saw the beauty of football in a different way and, for many, would come to represent an opposition to Guardiola and his graceful approach.
A clash of styles soon broke out in Spain, when Simeone moved to Europe to coach Atlético Madrid in 2011 – a few months after Barcelona won the Champions League for the second time in a mesmerizing manner at Wembley Stadium.
More than a decade later, with two coaches remaining at the helm of the game, Simeone is still the embodiment of a rugged and uncompromising Atletico team and Guardiola is now striving to turn football into an art form at Manchester City.
City and Atletico face off in the Champions League quarter-finals on Tuesday – the first competitive meeting between the teams, if not the men to lead them.
Yet given Guardiola and Simeone are two of the game’s most current coaches, the fact that they’ve only come up against each other three times is as surprising as it is refreshing.
The most recent was in the 2016 Champions League, when Atletico knocked out Guardiola’s highly staunch Bayern Munich team on goal after a tight match in the semi-finals. It is one of Guardiola’s many painful exits in the Champions League since his last title in 2011.
Guardiola and Simeone met for only the second time in February 2012, a few months before Guardiola left Barcelona. In the Spanish league, the Catalan team won 2–1.
There was a difference of one goal in all three matches. Expect more in the next week, even if the city starts out as a favorite.
“They are going to be very aggressive,” City midfielder Bernardo Silva said on Monday. “They won’t give us much space and it’s going to be very tight. Certainly not an open game – that’s the quality of Atletico.”
Indeed, Guardiola has used Atletico’s Manchester United elimination in the last 16 as a guide as to what the team should expect.
“United couldn’t breathe in the first 15-20 minutes against United,” Guardiola said.
And it is this ability to disappoint that sets Atlético apart. Even if it is achieved using what is often regarded as a non-player-like tactic that has angered opposition coaches and players for years.
“It’s frustrating at times,” Liverpool defender Andrew Robertson said of Atletico in 2020, when his team was eliminated by the Spanish club, “but that’s not going to change.”
There was a time, especially in the 2020-21 season, when Simeone tried to use the qualities of forwards like Luis Suarez and Joao Felix to turn Atletico into an attack-minded team.
When it comes to crises, Simeone usually returns to his more destructive and practical game plan and is likely to perform at City’s Etihad Stadium for the first leg on Tuesday.
As for Guardiola, who remains committed to his possession-based philosophy, he said he was unwilling to “judge” coaches like Simeone, who have a different approach to the game. In fact, he seems to have had a misconception about Atletico’s style.
“They are more aggressive than people believe,” Guardiola said. “He (Simeon) doesn’t want to take risks in the build-up, but, after that, he has quality and plays really well in the last third.
“It depends on the position of the ball, the moment of the game. They know how to play at every precise moment. Winning, losing, last minute, opening minute.”
So what about Atletico’s alleged use of the dark arts – wasting time, harassment of referees, walking around? Was there a problem, Guardiola was asked, “Ugly victory?”
“What’s ugly? What’s playing ugly?” He replied. “It’s getting smart.”
Guardiola has been accused of overturning his strategy in big games and admitted he was given the point on Monday.
Not that it will stop him from doing it again when Simeone and Atletico come to Manchester.
“You have to adapt and adjust,” he said before ending with a smile. “That’s why I like to think and do stupid tricks so that later, when I don’t win, I’m punished.”
Yet another layer that should be lucrative for the upcoming double-header between the defending English and Spanish champions.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80