A Plan That Worked Perfectly, Until the Moment It Didn’t

Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid hunkered down and defended in its Champions League quarterfinal at Manchester City. But a single goal might be enough to send it packing. – 

MANCHESTER, England — After a while, feeling bored, cold and wet, Éderson decided to go for a walk. The Manchester City goalkeeper had spent 20 minutes dutifully guarding his penalty area. He had checked all four corners for danger.– 

He found nothing. He had stared, squinting, into the distance, scanning for some threat on the horizon. Nothing there, either. And so, idly, he wandered forward. He was entirely alone.

There was nobody else in his half of the field. Manchester City’s central defenders, the players employed as his doughty sentries, were now stationed deep in Atlético Madrid territory, in the sorts of positions more habitually occupied by elfin attacking midfielders.

As he approached the halfway line, Éderson slowed his pace just a little. He had the air of a man who had been walking with no particular destination in mind: He did not really know what he planned to do when he got there.

He bounced on his heels. He stretched down and touched his toes. He loitered for a few seconds, reveling in the sensation of what it must be like to be involved in a soccer match, and then, slowly made his way back, ruefully retaking his lonely post.

The Brazilian’s ennui could not — as it often can, during the course of both the domestic and the European seasons — be traced to Manchester City’s overwhelming superiority over its opposition, to its vast financial power, to its supercharged strength.

Or, rather, it cannot solely be traced to that. To some extent, Éderson was bored because Atlético Madrid was content for him to be bored.

Perhaps the best indication of how Diego Simeone, Atlético’s coach, intended to approach Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal came in its first second. Manchester City had the kickoff, and at that instant, every single Atlético player seemed to take a step back, each man moving a little farther into his own half.

Or maybe it was that brief, fleeting and possibly accidental moment when the redoubtable Geoffrey Kondogbia burst into City’s half, looked up, and saw nothing in front of him except a couple of light blue jerseys and a broad swath of green. His teammates had not so much as flickered.

They were all locked in their holding pattern, under orders to stand their ground. That is exactly how Simeone wants it, of course. The Argentine is in many ways the polar opposite to Pep Guardiola, his City counterpart. That is a cliché, now, the sort of glib judgment that feels too easy, but it holds true.

Guardiola’s vision of soccer is based on making space appear out of nowhere. Simeone’s is focused, laser sharp, on finding ways to make it evaporate. Guardiola has built his legend on making things happen. Simeone has constructed his on making sure they do not.