The art of defending is being lost. These days, football is largely dominated by attacking teams and that trend is proved by the presence of Real Madrid and Liverpool in the Champions League final later this month.
However, there is one team in Europe that still knows how to master the discipline of defending and that is Atletico Madrid. And it has helped them reach a European final of their own as they meet Marseille in Wednesday’s Europa League showpiece in Lyon.
Atletico were surprisingly knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages, third place in a tough foursome that also featured Roma and Chelsea. Amid a lack of goals and problems adjusting initially to their new stadium, however, their back line has remained as strong as ever.
Diego Simeone’s side have conceded just 20 goals in their 37 fixtures in La Liga this term, which is significantly better than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues in 2017-18.
Champions Barcelona had let in just 24 prior to the weekend, but then shipped five in a 5-4 loss at Levante, while Manchester City finished the Premier League with 27 conceded and United 28. In Germany, Bayern Munich have also let in 28 (but in 34 games), while Paris Saint-Germain have received 29 in 37 fixtures in Ligue 1.
By way of comparison, this season’s Champions League finalists – Liverpool and Real Madrid – have conceded 38 (in 38) and 42 (in 37) respectively in the league this season. And Wednesday’s Europa League fivals Marseille have let in 46 in their 37 fixtures in Ligue 1.
It is also true that Atleti have scored fewer goals (56 compared to Marseille’s 78), but the Spanish side are also playing in a stronger league and a look at their respective routes to the Europa League final show a similar return – the Rojiblancos have netted 17, one more than the French side.
At the other end, though, the difference is noticeable again. Atleti have conceded only three times in their eight knockout games, while Marseille have let in eight over that span.
In all competitions this season, Diego Simeone’s side have had to pick the ball out of their net on only 33 occasions. And interestingly, Marseille have let in exactly double that amount (66) – albeit in three more matches (60 compared to 57).
Uruguay centre-back Diego Godin put in a defensive masterclass in the semi-final second leg win over Arsenal as the Rojiblancos ran out 1-0 winners to advance with a 2-1 aggregate victory after having held the Gunners to a 1-1 draw in London despite playing nearly the whole game with 10 men.
After the second match, a television interviewer put it to Godin that he had played a fantastic game. To which he replied, quite simply: “That’s what we’re here for, to defend…”
Goalkeeper Jan Oblak was also outstanding against Arsenal and the Serbian shot-stopper saved a penalty in the 1-0 win over Getafe on Saturday. It was the third spot-kick he had saved out of four this season. And in total, he has stopped seven of his last 12 (not including shootouts).
“I’m happy to have Oblak with us,” Simeone said afterwards. “He came with a lot of excitement, it was tough for him to train with the team and now he’s among the best goalkeepers in the world.”
He may even be the best. The best goalkeeper playing in the best defence in the game, although it is – as Simeone says – a colletive effort. In that area, though, the stats show that Atletico are twice as good as Marseille this season and in a one-off final, that could well give the Rojiblancos the edge on Wednesday night.