There is a strange trend in our sport for expressing disgust at teams and coaches who play ‘on the edge’ during their careers, only to look back more fondly on their most memorable incidents a few decades later.
Last weekend’s top-of-the-table game is a perfect illustration of that.
When I acclaimed the rivalry between Manchester City and Liverpool as the greatest in terms of quality that English football has ever seen, the counter-arguments followed the same pattern.
How can it be a ‘proper’ rivalry when there is so much respect between the coaches and players?
Where are the incidents like Martin Keown getting in Ruud van Nistelrooy’s face, ‘pizzagate’, or Roy Keane picking a fight with Patrick Vieira when the teams line up in the tunnel?
Those who disagreed were nostalgic for the needle of Manchester United versus Arsenal, arguing that the drama of those fixtures made them more compelling. Even in the aftermath of one of the most thrilling, high-class Premier League games in years, there were those suggesting City versus Liverpool is ‘too nice’.
It is hard to reconcile this response with those who say they were appalled by Atletico’s approach in midweek. Many descriptions label Atletico ‘a disgrace’. What do neutrals want from a football match?
The game is at its most riveting when there is a collision of style and personality. That can be in the form of Klopp versus Guardiola, where despite the respect, they lead two very different teams in varied ways. Or Simeone versus the rest of the world, the South American at his best when he and his players are their most belligerent.
These differences are to be encouraged and cherished, not sneered at. The game would be boring if every coach played the same way.
With respect to Guardiola, there is nothing he would love more than for every opposition coach to try to replicate City’s passing game. The dullest fixtures are those in which an aspiring manager encourages his team to play the so-called ‘right way’ against City, trying to retain possession, only to get hammered.
At full-time, they receive generous praise from Guardiola about how good they are – the surest sign that they offered no threat whatsoever.
Simeone was always going to provide City with a physical and emotional challenge they rarely face in England.
The reaction to Atletico’s performance was more over the top than anything they actually did. They were predictably aggressive and did as much as possible to prevent a free-flowing game. But there were no career-threatening two-footed challenges, or incidents that qualify as cheating.
It was a throwback performance – the kind of display which was more common in football 20 years ago – where a coach leading a team he knew was inferior tried to make life as uncomfortable as possible for his opponent. Denying the likes of Simeone the licence to do that means the outcome is certain before a ball is kicked.
It is no different to what Liverpool did in 2005 to beat Chelsea at Anfield, or what Jose Mourinho often did to beat Guardiola’s great Barcelona team. Every major fixture was turned into a war with no inch surrendered, every weapon at the coaches disposal utilised, even if it did occasionally mean making the game scrappy, to upset the rhythm of a rival.
Some people call it ‘spoiling the game’. It enhances the competition and when it works for your team you love it. As for that contentious topic of ‘gamesmanship’ – getting away with whatever you can within the rules will always be part of elite sport.
It is to City’s credit they made it through to the semi-final in an intimidating environment. If City win the Champions League this season, or complete the treble, Wednesday will be the game Guardiola and his players will discuss most during their reunion dinners.
Stefan Savic putting his head into Raheem Sterling will be their Keown versus Van Nistelrooy moment and the tunnel brawl after the final whistle is City’s version of pizzagate.
The hostility felt in the immediate aftermath of the fixture will, in time, be replaced by pride at how it all unfolded.
I guarantee that in 20 years time, the City players will look back at the experience with more humour than resentment, recalling how seven players were booked in added time as Atletico took imminent defeat as badly as anticipated. City’s loathing for Simeone in 2022 will have given way to respect by 2042.
Simeone is box office. Win or lose, he guarantees a post-match debate.
The criticism shadowing him and his team today reeks of hypocrisy. Why would anyone wish to sanitise every football game?
As the game has evolved, there is rightly more protection for players, shocking, nasty tackles subjected to instant and long-term punishment. There are so many officials and cameras, there is not much you can get away with.
I must admit, seeing Jack Grealish getting his hair pulled amused more than appalled me. That is not to condone it, but it is hardly a crime against football.
I would highly recommend watching the documentary about Simeone, which gives an insight into what makes him tick. His intensity smashes through the TV screen.
“What happens on the pitch, stays on the pitch,” he says.
That’s his means of justifying those actions, which have occasionally gone too far and crossed a line. As a player he once stamped on an opponent, while his role ensuring David Beckham was sent off at the 1998 World Cup secured his status as a pantomime villain to England fans.
Simeone has fashioned a side in his image; warrior-like, edgy, determined to maximise discomfort. No team can play against Atletico without feeling they are going to have to earn their victory.
There are plenty of Premier League clubs who could learn from that.
The quality of our game has been improved by the number of coaches following Guardiola and Klopp.
The drama of it will be enhanced for as long as there are those influenced by Simeone.