The kings of sh*thousing: How Simeone and Atletico Madrid became the masters of football’s dark arts

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Manchester City can consider themselves warned.

When they face Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals over the next fortnight, they will be fighting two battles.

The first is football’s technical side. That is the easier one, the part that City will back themselves to win, even though Atletico boast impressive players like Joao Felix and Jan Oblak.

The second is something more nebulous, more intangible, an intense battle of mentality, pressure and provocation. Of marginal gains, obtaining small edges wherever possible.

Atletico Madrid are the masters of ‘sh*thousing’, which is not just a way of winding up opponents and their supporters, but a key pillar of the club’s hopes of European glory.

"I don't know if the game went more than two minutes without being interrupted with someone lying on the floor,” complained Manchester United coach Ralf Rangnick, after his team were beaten 1-0 at Old Trafford by Atletico in the last 16, and eliminated 2-1 on aggregate.

Man City, then, would do well to learn from their neighbours’ defeat, where Atletico put on a classic display of ‘sh*thousery’ to frustrate Rangnick’s side and stop them from finding a rhythm, all while winding the clock down.

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Atletico tumbled easily, winning soft fouls, and broke up the game by exaggerating injuries.

“Every time you touch them, they go down and it's a foul,” grumbled Harry Maguire.

Furious United fans threw bottles at Simeone as he raced towards the tunnel at full-time, left raging by what they had seen, although that was no excuse for their actions.

Liverpool suffered the same fate in 2020, with left-back Andy Robertson complaining: “They started falling over and trying to get under our skin.”

Former England and Man City midfielder Trevor Sinclair was left enraged by Atletico at the time, as Liverpool were knocked out.

“I played against Simeone in the World Cup and he was a horrible man to play against,” he explained. “Atletico Madrid have got some great talented players, so to use the dark arts I think is wrong.

“For me, deliberate handballs, pulling shirts, cynical deliberate fouls, diving, these are all things I don’t want to see in the game.

“We call it the beautiful game for a reason, football is supposed to be beautiful to watch. But this is absolute rubbish, I don’t like seeing it.”

Atletico are viewed as the kings of the dark arts in England, though their fans might argue that over the past few years, the team has not indulged in them enough.

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The Manchester United match was a throwback to the days of the two Diegos - Costa and Godin - both experts in the underhand.

In 2014, it was easier for Simeone to get away with it, with his team truly the underdogs, scrapping against giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, and eventually going on to win the Spanish title for the first time in 18 years, at Camp Nou with a 1-1 draw on the last day of the season.

Given how disadvantaged Atletico were financially, compared to Madrid and Barca, Simeone had to make every edge count. The way to compete with the elite was to stop them by any means necessary, to scrap and to spoil.

Atletico leaned on the club’s values of hard work, courage and heart, to get his players to do anything for the communal cause, crossing lines or not.

In the years since, Atletico have grown and brought in a lot of quality attacking stars, from Felix to Matheus Cunha, Antoine Griezmann to Luis Suarez.

The onus has been on them to attack more and, with Suarez - admittedly no stranger to sh*thousery himself - up front, they won the title again last season, with a more attractive style of football.

For Atletico’s dark arts to work most efficiently, the team also needs to try and frustrate their opponents tactically, leaving little space at the back and shutting up shop after snatching an early lead, adding to their rising anger.

Perhaps because many consider Atletico to have the strongest squad in La Liga, they have not felt as comfortable playing in the same fashion domestically, but in Europe, Simeone and his players have reverted to type.

“Simeone recovers pure Cholismo,” ran a recent headline in Diario Sport, referring to the style of play and attitude his 2014 team were known for. “Cholismo takes Old Trafford,” noted El Pais.

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Atletico have never won the Champions League and it is easy for Simeone to foster an us-against-the-world mentality, making Atletico the underdogs again, which they have not been on home soil.

“I see a competitive side, one that doesn't feel ashamed to drop deep,” noted Simeone recently, with his players sliding into their more defensive shell again after months of their back-line being uncharacteristically all at sea.

Against Porto in the last game of the Champions League group phase, they pulled out all their tricks to snatch a 3-1 win at the Estadio do Dragao and progress.

After Yannick Carrasco was sent off - giving Atletico full license to go backs-against-the-wall - they started haranguing the officials and winding up Porto players.

Wendell was immediately sucked in like a moth to light and raised an arm to Cunha, who went down like a sack of bricks, with referee Clement Turpin brandishing the red card. A 42-man brawl ensued and Porto’s heads had gone by the end of it, with Atletico thriving in the chaos.

Whether you approve of Simeone’s tactics or not, it’s undoubtedly impressive that he can get the current squad implicated in them, after so much turnover. Felix, for example, arrived all skilful touches and soft-edges in 2019, but in February 2021 was spotted screaming, “Shut your f*cking mouth!” at the coach.

The Portugal international has burst into spectacular form recently, hardened by Simeone’s tutelage while becoming more lethal in front of goal, netting twice in the 4-1 win over Alaves on Saturday.

“I love it when players rebel,” said Simeone of Felix’s outburst, the coach clearly keen on shaping a team in his image.

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Many people’s first memories of Simeone will be his play-acting, and the role he played in getting David Beckham sent off at the 1998 World Cup, by ruffling his hair and then overreacting to his opponent’s angry response. Sh*thousing, but with a purpose.

No longer able to do it himself on the pitch, Simeone is the conductor on the sidelines, dressed all in black like a malignant presence, constantly urging his team onwards, if not always forwards.

Liverpool, earlier in the group stage, showed what is needed to overcome Atletico - although Simeone’s side were not fighting for their lives at that point.

They needed some luck, with a referee who was not having any of Atletico’s misbehaviour in Dutchman Danny Makkelie, but also played with such intensity and gusto that even the Rojiblancos could not upset the apple cart. 

Jurgen Klopp also paid attention to Atletico players trying to get under Sadio Mane’s skin and subbed the Senegal winger, who was on a booking, earlier than he might have otherwise.

Manchester City are no strangers to tactical fouls themselves, although Guardiola will need to prime his players for everything else that comes with Atletico’s visit to the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday, and then the trip to the Wanda Metropolitano on April 13.

That will be crucial, especially given how City’s failings in Europe have often come down to mentality, caving under pressure and losing against lesser opponents, including Lyon, Tottenham and Monaco.

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Guardiola has suffered it first-hand, with Atletico knocking out his Bayern Munich side in the 2016 semi-finals, the Spanish coach rowing with his Argentine counterpart on the touchline.

Pep may ever remember a clash in his playing days with Atletico, where Simeone turned him brilliantly, also completing a double nutmeg on Guardiola’s Barcelona team-mate Jose Mari Bakero, and cheekily applauded himself afterwards before continuing the move.

Love it or hate it, that is the game Atletico Madrid will play. City need to be able to handle it if they are to progress.