Pep Guardiola bristled twice at long-held cliches on Monday during Manchester City‘s press conference ahead of Tuesday night’s Champions League first-leg quarterfinal clash with Atletico Madrid. For a start, he got sarcastic when the familiar “overthinking in big games” accusation was launched in his direction: “In the Champions League, I always overthink… I always create new tactics and ideas and tomorrow you will see a new one… we will play with 12 men.”

Then, he became dismissive when asked about another tired theme: the contrast in style between himself and Diego Simeone, the Atletico boss, whose teams get typecast as defensive, unscrupulous and on the ethical edge of sports.

“There is a misconception, wrong, about the way [Simeone] plays,” he said. “It’s more offensive than people believe… I’m not going to talk one second about this stupid debate. Everyone tries to to win the game. If they win, they are right. If we win, we are right.”

Guardiola, of course, is correct on both counts. The “overthinking” charge doesn’t come out of thin air — his critics will bring up dropping Yaya Toure against Monaco in 2016-17, deploying Aymeric Laporte at left-back against Liverpool in 2017-18, leaving out Kevin De Bruyne against Spurs in 2018-19, switching to a back three with two holding midfielders against Lyon in 2019-20 and even going without a defensive midfielder in last year’s final against Chelsea — but you also need to view it in context. He doesn’t do it because he’s on some tactical ego trip; he does it to gain an edge, often against weaker opponents who spent the buildup to the game studying every facet of City and how to neutralise them.

When it works — like turning Oleksandr Zinchenko from a No.10 into a left-back, flipping Bernardo Silva from a winger to a midfielder (and sometimes even a striker) or showing the world he can win the Premier League without a recognized “traditional” center-forward — we don’t accuse him of overthinking, do we?

Equally, the depiction of Atletico as a purely defensive, grind-it-out, win-ugly-by-any-means-necessary is also somewhat tired. Anyone who has watched LaLiga over the past year or so will have seen Simeone try to wean Atleti off his “Cholista” roots in an effort to play more proactive, attacking football. He has tinkered and experimented to get the balance right; it hasn’t always worked, and at times they’ve reverted to type, but StatsBomb data has them in the top five in terms of shots and non-penalty xG and their disciplinary record is mid-table.

The days when this side was defined by a Diego Godin snarl, a Diego Costa elbow and a Raul Garcia header are long gone as you’d expect from a team that has Joao Felix up front.

And yet here’s the thing about cliches: they contain more than a kernel of truth. Tuesday night’s game at the Etihad saw two managers who played up to their stereotype, as if they were were professional wrestlers determined to stick to an accessible, easy-to-understand kayfabe.

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Guardiola overthinking? It’s not so much that with Joao Cancelo forced to play on the right due to Kyle Walker‘s suspension, he opted for Nathan Ake — more of a center-back throughout his career — at left-back instead of Zinchenko, City’s first choice over the past few seasons. That may have been down to the fact that Zinchenko, who was on the bench, had not started a game in nearly a month and, understandably, may be weighed down by the horrors unfolding his his native Ukraine.

It was more the choice of leaving Phil Foden on the bench, moving Bernardo Silva up front and sticking Ilkay Gundogan in midfield. Not something you expect at home from a side that sits deep and leaves you possession like Atletico. But where the blueprint was followed religiously, and the cliches confirmed convincingly, was in how the game unfolded and each manager lived up to the stereotype.

Simeone’s side sat deep in a 5-3-2 formation with five defenders, three holding midfielders and two counterattacking forwards who spent much of the game as auxiliary fullbacks. They failed to make a single attempt at goal throughout the game. Guardiola’s men enjoyed 71 percent possession and while they ended up with 15 shots, most were speculative hit-and-hopers and just two were on target, which is why Jan Oblak had to make just one save. It wasn’t a particularly dirty match, but right at the end, Atleti seemed to want to live up to there “cartoon villain” image: Rodrigo De Paul and Matheus Cunha clashed with Ederson, while Sime Vrsaljko smacked a ball off a prone Jack Grealish and later fondled his headband.

All of which is, somewhat, ironic, but fundamentally not unexpected.

Teams play to their strengths. City’s are passing, movement and winning the ball back quickly after losing it (something they didn’t do often because they rarely lost the ball). Atletico’s — much as they’d like to become a bit more multi-faceted — are ultimately stout defending and organization. Both were really effective at what they do, and what we got was immoveable object besting unstoppable force for most of the game. Or offense vs. defense, as most had predicted.

When this happens, there are three ways to break the stalemate: a defensive error, a refereeing mistake or some unscripted individual briliance. In the end, it was the latter that turned the game, thanks to Phil Foden, who came on as a sub and conjured up that assist for De Bruyne.

It’s knockout football. You expect teams to play their strengths, which is exactly what Simeone and Guardiola did. And when they adopt diametrically opposed game-plans and are (mostly) flawless, this is what you get: a stalemate decided in the blink of an eye.

Sometimes, it’s OK to be exactly what others think you are. Sometimes it’s OK to be yourself.



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