Just like love, Diego Simeone always finds a way.
His Atletico Madrid side huffed and puffed at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday evening, but managed to slither past Bayern Munich on away goals after a 2-1 defeat.
The siege mentality that has characterised their play over the last few years was in evidence in Germany: Atleti spent much of the second half encamped in their own penalty area, defending with grit and skill against the red tide.
The most remarkable thing about this side is just how much joy they seem to take from surviving under pressure.
While other sides seem to tolerate the defensive side of the game, Atleti embrace it, throwing themselves into the work.
There is much to be said of the players’ positional sense and energy levels, but also notable is just how good they all are at tackling. From defensive titans Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez to the midfielders and attackers, they seem to win far more than their share of individual battles, dispossessing opponents with remarkable frequency.
Simeone, of course, has taken plenty of credit for all this in recent months. But he must also be praised for his ability to refresh a side that, even between trophies, has been cherry-picked by the more traditional European giants.
To emphasise that point, we take a look at the changing face of the side over the course of their last four European finals — from their two Europa League wins in 2010 and 2012 to the side we can expect to line up against Real Madrid or Manchester City in Milan.
Atletico’s European run started before Simeone’s arrival in 2011. Under Quique Sanchez Flores, they triumphed in the continent’s secondary competition courtesy of a Diego Forlan’s double in Hamburg.
The win came at the end of a slightly fortuitous run to the final – Los Colchoneros entered the competition after being knocked out of the Champions League and needed away goals to see off Sporting, Valencia and Liverpool — but this was a deserved victory, albeit one that required extra time.
Many of the tropes that exist today were in evidence here: two fairly deep-lying central midfielders, wide players set up to come inside, two forwards who could both drop off when needed. But the defence was not as circumspect as today’s and Tomas Ujfalusi — a very good player — was something of a square peg at right-back.
Two years on, and with Simeone in the dugout, things were markedly different. The entire starting XI had changed, with only three members of the matchday squad in the 2010 final — Antonio Lopez, Alvaro Dominguez and Paulo Assuncao — still around to make the 18 in Bucharest.
With Forlan and Sergio Aguero having moved on, Radamel Falcao was the undoubted focal point going forward, supported by a varied attacking midfield three comprised of an old-school playmaker (Diego), a tricky winger (ArdaTuran) and Adrian, a versatile forward. The latter two dropped in to support their full-backs when Atleti lost possession.
By this stage, Simeone had stumbled upon a reliable defensive formula. Gabi and Mario Suarez (who only started due to Tiago’s unfortunate suspension) patrolled the midfield, ahead of a backline that would be the foundation of their 2013/14 La Liga win. Filipe Luis and particularly Juanfran were upgrades on the 2010 full-backs, overlapping to provide width when Adrian and Arda drifted inside.
The plan worked perfectly, Falcao netting twice early on before Atleti drew Athletic’s sting and grabbed a third through Diego in the closing minutes. Simeone had his first trophy as a manager in Europe.
By 2014, Atletico had reached peak durability. Their Spanish title win was a classic case of grinders keepers, the success achieved despite scoring fully 27 fewer goals than Real Madrid and 23 fewer than Barcelona. If that wasn’t achievement enough, they then came within seconds of sealing a maiden European Cup trophy in Lisbon.
The defenders, led by gladiatorial Godin and the more subtle Miranda, knew each other’s games inside out by this stage, while Thibaut Courtois had blossomed into the best goalkeeper in Europe. Gone were the more pioneering wide men of previous finals, replaced by two hybrid midfielders: the busy, tidy Koke and the more concussive Raul Garcia, back from a loan spell at Osasuna to deputise for the suspended Arda.
The game followed a familiar pattern: Godin plundered the opener from a corner in the first half and Atleti sat back, inviting pressure they knew they could cope with. But the loss of Diego Costa to a recurrence of an injury within the first ten minutes eventually cost them: with no big man hold the ball up, David Villa was bullied out of the game and was unable to provide an outlet. When Sergio Ramos grabbed a last-gasp equaliser, the writing was on the wall.
Given recent Champions League games and top-of-the-table La Liga matches, this is the XI we can expect Simeone to pick in the final.
Again, change has been incremental: the scrappy Gimenez has proved a fine partner for Godin, Saul Niguez is like Raul Garcia with slightly more technical ability, Antoine Griezmann is seemingly at the peak of his powers and one of the most alluring attacking forces in the world at the moment.
Other alterations hint at the growing depth of the squad: Augusto Fernandez has stepped into Tiago’s shoes and provided brains and ballast in the middle, while a reborn Fernando Torres has elbowed his way past Angel Correa, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco and Luciano Vietto to establish himself as Griezmann’s preferred foil.
No matter who their opponents, this Atleti side will take some beating. Just like previous iterations did.