“They will break upon this fortress like water on rock.”
-Theoden (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers)
PSV Eindhoven have scored in each of their 24 Eredivisie matches so far this season. The last time they failed to find the back of the net was in November, when they were lulled into a scoreless draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford.
The single point helped them to a second-place finish in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League, and a Round of 16 showdown with Atletico Madrid—an opponent as impressive defensively as they are in attack.
Stylistically, there isn’t a more divergent pair of teams tied together in the competition’s first knockout round, and the opposing methods that will be on display Wednesday in the Netherlands and next month in Spain will almost certainly favour Atletico.
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In fact, there’s a case to be made that Los Colchoneros could progress to a second Champions League final in three years, and perhaps even win it. After all, isn’t there a cliche that connects good defence to winning trophies?
Atletico, as it happens, last conceded 17 days ago in a 3-1 win at home to Eibar. They’ve not been breached in the 224 minutes since, and Barcelona are the only side to have tallied more than once against them in a La Liga match this term.
Most opposing forwards have struggled to merely bring the ball into Atletico’s 18-yard box, never mind fashion a goal-scoring opportunity; goalkeeper Jan Oblak, with 16 clean sheets already, will almost certainly win the Spanish top flight’s prestigious Zamora award.
PSV will be hard-pressed to so much as get a look at the Slovenia international over the two legs—a job that won’t be made any easier by the injury absence of Luuk de Jong, who leads the Eredivisie with 17 goals.
Andres Guardado, who has been one of the top playmakers in the Dutch top flight since turning a loan spell from Valencia into a permanent move, could also miss Wednesday’s match, although in Jurgen Locadia, Gaston Pereiro and Luciano Narsing, PSV manager Phillip Cocu still has the sort of weaponry that, against most other visitors to Philips Stadion, would be more than capable of creating breakthroughs.
Atletico, however, are a different animal, and Cocu knows it.
“Atletico are a good example of what a team can do,” he said this week. “They all play for the team, without any exceptions. Nobody is bigger than anyone else. They are all willing to give 100 percent for the team.”
That team-first mentality, laced with doses of viciousness and determination, is the primary factor in Atletico’s recent success story, and an embodiment of tenacious manager Diego Simeone. Every player, from the forward to the winger to the fullback, is expected to contribute on the defensive side of the ball. Expression is stifled for the sake of the collective.
“Atletico Madrid are nothing like the team they were when I played in Spain,” added Cocu, who represented Barcelona from 1998 to 2004. “They are very consistent and always act as a tight unit. They don’t give away much space, regardless of their opponents.”
When not in possession—which tends to be more often than not—Atletico keep an effective shape in front of their 18-yard box. They’re willing to give away space in the middle third of the park; their first priority is harm reduction.
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They also swing to the wide areas when it’s necessary to press the opposition on the flanks. Every action is executed with an eye to keeping the ball in low-risk areas, and after inevitably winning it they move it quickly downfield on the break.
Much-coveted midfielder Koke, who signed a five-year contract at Estadio Vicente Calderon last June, is the embodiment of the Atletico approach. He also happens to be the sort of hybrid, centre-wide contributor so necessary to his side’s narrow formation.
Gabi, the captain, is an effective tackler and adapt at playing long passes. The wildly under-appreciated Diego Godin is one of the best, all-around defenders in world football. Up top, Antoine Griezmann continues to develop into a world-class attacker who can play across the forward line.
Not that descriptions of individual contributions can, in any way, do justice to what Atletico have achieved under Simeone. Indeed, it seems almost inappropriate to mention them.
What’s of much greater importance is the 495 interceptions they’ve made as a group in La Liga, or the 541 clearances. (Real Madrid, by comparison, have made 438 interceptions this campaign; Barcelona 396.)
Atletico might not set the world alight with stylistic flashes, but the waves of attack they face will break upon them like water on rock.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter