Diego Simeone was working in Argentina in the early years of his coaching career when he requested to attend some training sessions at Barcelona, led at the time by Pep Guardiola.
Barcelona was the pre-eminent club in world soccer, revolutionising the game between 2008-12 with its “tiki-taka” passing style favored by Guardiola and mastered by the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández.
It wasn’t for Simeone, though.
“We talked,” Guardiola has recounted, “and he told me, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t feel it.’”
Simeone, a combative and hard-working midfielder as a player, saw the beauty of soccer in a different way and, for many, would come to represent the antithesis of Guardiola and his beautiful approach.
A clash of styles soon took hold in Spain, when Simeone moved to Europe to become coach of Atlético Madrid in 2011 — a few months after Barcelona won the Champions League for the second time and in mesmeric fashion at Wembley Stadium.
More than a decade later, the two coaches remain at the top of the game, with Simeone still the embodiment of a rugged and uncompromising Atlético team and Guardiola now attempting to turn soccer into an art form at Manchester City.
City and Atlético go head-to-head in the Champions League quarterfinals on Tuesday — a first competitive meeting between the teams, if not the men leading them.
Yet given Guardiola and Simeone are two of the sport’s most storied current coaches, the fact that they have only come up against each other three times is as surprising as it is refreshing.
The most recent was in the Champions League in 2016, when Atlético eliminated Guardiola’s highly fancied Bayern Munich team on away goals after a pair of tightly contested legs in the semifinals. It’s one of Guardiola’s many painful exits in the Champions League since his last title, in 2011.
The only other time Guardiola and Simeone faced each other was in February 2012, a few months before Guardiola quit Barcelona. The Catalan team won 2-1 in the Spanish league.
One goal was the difference in all three games. Expect more of the same over the next week, even if City starts out as the favorite.
“They are going to be very aggressive,” City midfielder Bernardo Silva said Monday. “They won’t give us much space and it’s going to be very tight. Definitely not an open game — that’s Atlético’s quality.”
Indeed, Guardiola has used Atlético’s elimination of Manchester United in the last 16 as a guide for what team should expect.
“The first 15-20 minutes against United, United couldn’t breathe,” Guardiola said.
And it’s that ability to frustrate that sets Atlético apart. Even if it is achieved by using what’s often perceived as unsportsmanlike tactics that have infuriated opposition coaches and players over the years.
“It is frustrating at times,” Liverpool defender Andrew Robertson said of Atlético in 2020 when his team was eliminated by the Spanish club, “but it is not going to change.”
There was a period, particularly in the 2020-21 season, when Simeone tried to turn Atlético into more of an attack-minded team, using the qualities of forwards like Luis Suárez and João Félix.
When it comes to the crunch, Simeone typically returns to his more destructive and pragmatic game plan and that is likely to be on show at City’s Etihad Stadium for the first leg on Tuesday.
As for Guardiola, who is wedded to his possession-based philosophy, he said he wasn’t ready to “judge” coaches like Simeone who have a different approach to the game. In fact, he thinks there might be a misconception about Atlético’s style.
“They are more offensive than people believe,” Guardiola said. “He (Simeone) doesn’t want to take a risk in the build-up but, after, they have quality and they play really well in the final third.
“It depends on the position of the ball, the moment of the game. They know exactly how to play in each exact moment. Winning, losing, last minutes, early minutes.”
So what about Atlético’s perceived use of the dark arts — the time-wasting, the haranguing of referees, the rolling around? Was there a problem, Guardiola was asked, with “winning ugly?”
“What is ugly? What is playing ugly?” he replied. ”It’s being smart.”
Guardiola has been accused of overthinking his tactics in the big games and he accepted that when it was put to him on Monday.
Not that it will stop him from doing so again when Simeone and Atlético come to Manchester.
“You have to adapt and adjust,” he said before finishing with a smile. “That’s why I love to overthink and create stupid tactics so that after, when I don’t win, I’m punished.”
Yet another layer to the upcoming double-header between the current English and Spanish champions that should be fascinating.
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