It’s always fascinating when opposite poles collide.
In the Premier League, Pep Guardiola’s methodical Manchester City leads the way, against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool juggernaut.
While Guardiola and Klopp are by no means cut from the same cloth, they share similarities in their approach; relentless pressing, fast counter-pressing and machine-like efficiency.
Still, in Diego Simeone, it’s hard to imagine a top coach who contrasts so much with Guardiola. On Tuesday, we’ll see how well the styles match.
It’s been almost six years since a side coached by Guardiola faced Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, when Bayern Munich faced Los Colchoneros in the Champions League semi-finals.
Simeone triumphed on this occasion, but on away goals. Atleti then lost to city rivals Real Madrid in the final, while Guardiola has been further in UEFA competition only once since then – last season, when City lost to Chelsea in the Porto final.
Indeed, only three times in total have Simeone and Guardiola faced each other. Pep holds the advantage in terms of wins (at least on the night), 2-1, as his Barcelona side beat Atleti 2-1 in La Liga in February 2012, in his final season at Camp Nou.
Two more matches will add to that head-to-head record over the coming weeks in a Champions League quarter-final that represents a real clash of styles.
obsession with possession
The approach of Guardiola’s death by a thousand cuts yielded unprecedented success. The city is a pleasure to watch at its best. Slick, fast, sublime. Everything you would associate with a team at the top of the game.
As has been the case throughout his managerial career, Guardiola wants to dominate possession, control the opposition by simply not allowing them to have the ball and, if they have it, then you can bet that his team will win him back in seconds, or commit a timely foul (Fernandinho, anyone?).
Taking this season into account, City are averaging 66.9% possession in all competitions, as they have attempted 30,155 passes, completing 27,067 (averaging 601 completed passes per game).
Simeone is much less concerned with his team having the ball, instead the focus is on staying compact and robust defensively, making a mistake – a misplaced pass, a heavy touch – out of the opposition and leaping. And in relative terms, his approach was equally successful.
Not that this is Simeone’s approach at all levels. Atleti also played wonderful football during his tenure and had sensational attacking players. Indeed, their current frontline options of Joao Felix, Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann, Angel Correa and Matheus Cunha are the envy of most teams.
Yet this season, Atleti have averaged just 48.8% possession across 41 matches. They completed 14,533 passes, including 7,317 in the opposing half. By comparison, City have recorded nearly 16,000 successful passes into opposition territory.
However, the difference is not so clear when it comes to balls played into the box, with City’s 1,730 making up 11% of their passes in the opposition half. This value climbs to 16.5% for Atleti (1,209).
Simeone’s men get a greater proportion of their passes in the other side’s half in the box, although City had 1,870 touches in the opposition box, with Atleti managing 964.
In the league alone, City had 715 streaks involving 10 or more assists. In La Liga, Atleti have only had 278.
City possession of course leads to shots – 837 of them this season in total. This eclipses Atleti’s 490, although the Spanish side have a better conversion rate (14.7 vs 13.5).
Fierce of the ball
One similarity when it comes to Guardiola and Simeone is their desire to be aggressive in their approach to winning the ball back. While Guardiola’s side will swarm an opposing player, Simeone’s men will be tenacious and full of blood.
So far this season, Atletico players have contested 4,263 duels, while City have attempted 3,848. However, the success rate is closer, with the Spanish champions winning 52% and City 51, 1.
Another major difference, however, is the way City press.
In the Premier League, only Liverpool (354) and Brighton and Hove Albion (290) have forced higher rotations than City (285), and Guardiola’s side rank second in the average starting distance of their attacks from their own goal (45.1 meters).
In Passes Allowed Per Defensive Action (PPDA), a metric to quantify the extent and aggressiveness of high pressure, City rank second, with Liverpool, in the Premier League, with their 9.9 only bettered by the 9.5 from Leeds United.
Atleti’s high 207 turnovers rank ninth in La Liga. However, their seven direct attack goals are the best in the Spanish table. City have scored four times from such breaks this season.
Solidity above all
This season, admittedly, Atleti have been exceptionally sloppy at the back, conceding 50 times and keeping 12 clean sheets, 17 more and 10 less than City, respectively.
However, followed in the previous five full seasons (since Guardiola joined City in 2016), only once Atleti have conceded more times than City, in 2018-19 (44-39).
Guardiola’s sides take more risks in possession and City have made 42 goal-leading errors throughout his time at the club. It was worth it, but Simeone’s more conservative approach only produced 21 such errors in the same time frame.
Defensive courage is the bedrock of Simeone’s success, and since the start of 2016-17 Atleti have kept 144 clean sheets. Still, it is City who top the charts in Europe’s top five leagues, with an outstanding 152.
Considering City have already scored 113 goals this season – 41 more than Atleti – perhaps this quarter-final won’t be as even as it might have been in past seasons, and that’s the Manchester team which must be considered as favourites.
But, as his clinical display at Old Trafford in the Round of 16 proved, Atleti still have the ability to frustrate and pick their moments to shine in attack.
This is further evidenced by Atleti’s La Liga-leading expected goal differential (xG) of +8.5 this season. In stark contrast, City scored 6.2 fewer goals than the quality of their chances would have suggested.
Whichever way the tie plays out, it’s sure to be an exciting brawl.