Only 18 months back, Ralf Rangnick was presiding over RB Leipzig as their Sporting Director when the energy drink powered club had the greatest night in their short history after knocking out Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Rangnick won’t be sipping Red Bull in an empty stand this time around. He’ll have to conjure up a plan and inspire the Red Devils to the same from the dug-out over the coming weeks in two tightly contested legs. While things might’ve changed for Rangnick, his counterpart is facing some of the same questions from 18 months back.
Does Atletico Madrid need a few face? Can Simeone take them any further? What of João Félix? Wasn’t the club’s record signing supposed to herald a change in style?
There’s the little matter of a second La Liga title under the Argentine’s stewardship between those 18 months, which has pushed those questions to the periphery. However, the recent success doesn’t make them firm favourites heading into this tie.
FiveThirtyEight gives Atletico Madrid a 56% chance of going through to the quarter-finals. The Spanish outfit currently sits at number 14 in the club soccer rankings according to the data-driven prediction model. They’re not that far ahead of 17th placed Manchester United but you didn’t need to know that to appreciate that there isn’t a lot separating the two sides at the moment.
What’s gone wrong this season?
Football fans tend to show less sympathy towards sides when they are punished for stretching the limits of their ideas. Bayern’s adventure is usually lauded but there was less of that when it recently led to a 4-2 loss to Bochum with Leroy Sane and Thomas Muller in midfield. Atletico’s conservatism — lauded by the masses during the initial years of the Simeone era — is no longer playing to the underdog narrative. There’s an element of schadenfreude that is derived from watching Atleti struggle that perhaps didn’t exist before.
Jordi Alba’s delightful volley from earlier in the month and Ivan Rakitic’s screamer from December — goals that opened the accounts for their respective sides in tight table-shifting six-pointers — are no longer giving Atletico the benefit of doubt.
It’s also been well documented in recent weeks that Jan Oblak’s had his worst season at the club. The perennial over-performer is noticeably underperforming according to the PSxG (post-shot expected goal) metric. It seems like the magic gloves can only have one owner per season and it’s passed hands to David De Gea.
Last season, Jan Oblak had a PSxG -/+ goals allowed value of +9.8. That’s down to -10.2 right now (Statsbomb via FBref). The cynic will propose that this is the gamble you take when lining up with a traditional shot-stopper like Oblak who relies heavily on this one skill and offers little else compared to the modern goalkeeper.
Atleti’s underlying numbers suggest they’re still conceding shots of lower quality. In 25 league games, they have an xGA (expected goals allowed) value of 21. 6, which is less than Sevilla’s 22.7. However, Sevilla have only conceded 17 goals to Atleti’s 34.
Luis Suarez might not be over-performing his expected goals this time round but Angel Correa is, which evens that out. In some sense, maybe much hasn’t changed since last season. It might just be a case of Jan Oblak’s form and some bad luck.
La Liga’s slight decline and an identity crisis
Of course, La Liga isn’t currently in its best moment. The likes of Villareal, Sevilla and Real Sociedad have taken big steps in recent years but the big three aren’t the all-conquering forces from half a decade ago. They remain competitive but have all shown some big cracks in the last couple of years.
Teams have opened up Atleti in myriad ways this season and United can take encouragement from that. Atleti could count themselves fortunate to have even made the knockouts. AC Milan were cruising in the group stage tie at the San Siro before a controversial red card titled the game in Atleti’s favour.
In the away tie against Liverpool, Trent Alexander-Arnold — Liverpool’s playmaker in chief —was allowed to run the game and was under no pressure before delivering a sumptuous delivery for Diogo Jota to open the scoring. Barcelona’s 4-2 rout from earlier in the month was also uncharacteristic of Atleti. A side that once seemed impenetrable past the halfway line with their aggression — reminiscent of the Tevez, Rooney and Park era in big away games — has been letting teams enter its half with regularity. A recovering Barcelona under Xavi was leading a rapid-fire barrage.
There’s clearly an identity crisis at play here. When trying to press from much higher at the start of a league game against Real Sociedad in October, Atleti were easily bypassed within seven minutes before reverting to type.
In the same game, Luis Suarez led a second-half comeback to draw the game 2-2. The Uruguayan’s goals took Atleti to the home straight last season. He preserves the goalscoring instincts and sneaky streak of yesteryear but isn’t the workhorse from those years anymore, which is a point of conflict.
It’s perhaps part of the reason why teams have been finding it easy to enter Atelti’s territory. He could still be partnered with a more mobile partner like Matheus Cunha and the in-form Angel Correa but João Félix’s guile and craft will have to be compromised to achieve that.
Not the same threat in transition
Atleti have shown some signs of their prowess in transition this season.
There was the second goal from a few days ago.
However, Atleti don’t carry the same transition threat from a few seasons back. The lack of players with any real speed will give United less to worry about. United will have to be brave and trust themselves to handle the transitions since they’re going to have a significant share of the ball.
For all of Atleti’s struggles this season, they have shown great resolve. There were great comebacks against Levante and Valencia most recently. They’ll be aware of United’s inability to hold onto leads from recent weeks. Speaking of their options in the forward areas, this is a side with great depth in midfield as well. They have the players to affect games as the game state demands and are comfortable switching between a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 formation.
How do United go about this?
United’s big line-up decision will also come in midfield. It’s been covered in the staff takeaways from a few days back. United can’t predict Atleti’s line-up but if the Spaniards go for the less defensively aware pairing of Felix and Suarez, it wouldn’t be as risky to play the in-form Paul Pogba ahead of Fred in the deeper areas.
United should look to build their attacks from the side Suarez is asked to defend before finding the likes of Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes to run things in the final third.
Cup competitions are hard to predict and despite all the preparation, a few moments could decide the tie. A change in the away goals rule should help United play with little to fear. This will especially be the case in the home leg next month.
What would a victory symbolize for the Reds?
United haven’t played a game of this magnitude since April 2019 against Barcelona. A win over two legs will not thrust United into the European elite but it will crystalize the little steps made since Ralf Rangnick’s arrival.
It’s been a difficult season for the Reds. Fans have had to tip-toe around ethical minefields, endure the worst run in the club’s recent history that saw a club legend lose the top job and sit through all the noise regarding dressing room unrest. The fans could use a lift that keeps the embers of the impossible glowing for a bit longer.