Diego Simeone recently celebrated eight years in charge of Atlético Madrid, making him the longest-serving current La Liga manager.
During his tenure so far, he’s transformed Atleti’s fortunes; they’ve gone from being a sleeping giant to one of Europe’s most respected and resilient teams, subsequently becoming a blueprint for others to follow.
Under the leadership of ‘El Cholo’ a first championship since 1996 arrived in 2013/14. They’ve also gone on to reach two European Cup finals — albeit painfully losing both to city rivals Real — but have collected a pair of Europa League crowns.
It’s fair to say Simeone has defied common wisdom relating to modern coaching, particularly about managers overstaying their welcome. He is similar to Sir Alex Ferguson in that regard, but the great Scot belonged to a different generation altogether.
However, no leader despite their greatness when it comes to team-building is immune from the inevitable. This season has already felt like a slog, even though it promised to be so different. With that, a date with the reigning Kings of Europe has already taken on added significance.
Victim of his own success
A club of Atlético’s stature — the third biggest across Spain — shouldn’t have been underachieving in the years between Simeone leaving as a player and rejoining as a head coach.
You can make the argument that since he took control it’s been the opposite. In the five seasons before his appointment they were averaging 61.4 points per season with an average finish of sixth place. His opening five campaigns saw them yield 82 points per season and finish third, more often than not. The only exception was a first-place finish that still feels remarkable.
This is the biggest issue regarding Los Rojiblancos. Despite their size they’re still below Spain’s big two and in comparison, struggle more to keep hold of their star players.
— Diego Pablo Simeone (@Simeone) December 28, 2019
It’s a testament to their recruitment policy and Simeone’s man-management — his sheer force of personality can make the least confident footballer into a world-beater — that they’ve managed to be this competitive.
Consequently, the goalposts have changed, for better or worse. Atleti, determined to live within their means, are expected to dine at the top table. But the reality suggests otherwise. There are going to be lulls, as a result of how they operate, which this season has turned into.
No matter the image, the Madrid-based club are not part of the elite, but that doesn’t mean they are not ambitious. Still, not even Simeone can be classified as a wizard. The “porteño” has instead created a monster, and if they aren’t wreaking havoc then something’s amiss.
Reaching a crossroad
As touched upon, Atleti’s success has been a simple formula: club and manager pulling in the same direction. Simeone, regardless of the many changes their first-team squad has gone through (107 players used and counting), has remained steadfast to his core beliefs.
There are certain traits an individual must possess to make his system work. Simeone, a man of the people and the people love him back, expects nothing less than blood, sweat and tears from those under him. From day one he intrinsically linked his playing staff with those paying to watch them, also known as Cholismo, a way of life — dominated by spirit, solidarity, unity and competition — he’s long propagated.
“Game by game is the life of the man on the street, day by day,” he once said. “We see ourselves reflected in society, in people who have to fight to keep going. As soon as we stop fighting we have no chance. People identify with us, we’re a source of hope to them.”
By feeding off that crowd energy, like he did as a player, they’ve been flying without wings. However, it feels that spark has gone, constant changes to personnel is no doubt a factor. This, of course, is nothing Simeone doesn’t recognise. After losing Antoine Griezmann last summer to Barça he pointed out the club’s recent record of replacing their main goalscorer.
João Félix, their most expensive signing at £113m, was meant to fill that void but there seems to be a clash in style. The rising Portuguese star is a forward who needs to be catered to and not the other way around, which Simeone prefers: team before individuals. One wonders if the Argentine had any say in his acquisition.
Heading into the Champions League knockout stage, Atletico currently find themselves in fourth and 13 points behind leaders Real Madrid. They’re expected to finish third which is where many would have foreseen.
But the problem is whether Simeone, who could have easily said goodbye now, is up for another major overhaul. Ferguson, who built a dynasty at Manchester United, always believed success operated in a four-year cycle. Simeone is in the middle of his third, with the previous two yielding great celebrations; but those sides have since been broken up, before being renewed with gusto.
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It could very well be the ground underneath has caught up. You can only defy playing well above your capabilities for so long. Atletico, not exactly a super-club, but far stronger than the majority of those in Europe, are where they are meant to be. They spent a pretty penny ahead of the 2019/20 campaign but lost stalwarts in the guise of the aforementioned Griezmann, Lucas Hernández, Rodri, Filipe Luís, Diego Godín and Juanfran (the last three leaving as free agents).
Not in his vocabulary
It happens. We’ve seen it with Borussia Dortmund before, and even Liverpool to an extent are in Atleti’s old shoes. So it’s fitting they meet. Simeone is a fighter and unquestionably backs himself to eliminate them from this season’s European Cup, but he’s also a realist and understands their own exit is just as likely.
His opposite number Jurgen Klopp was in a complimentary mood ahead of their first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano, where the Reds clinched their sixth crown last year. He sees themselves as peas in a pod and worthy of recognition, which has often eluded the pair in their respective managerial careers.
“We have a similar story a little bit,” he told reporters. “We tried a lot and didn’t win, but we still tried. I like that. He is so competitive – wow! Actually, we have a good relationship but I’m pretty sure he will forget that on the touchline because he is so animated.”
Another cycle may have come and gone, but there seems to be a fight left in this team. Despite their league position, only leaders Real boast a stronger defensive record (17 conceded across 24 games) which no doubt pleases their manager. And it wasn’t long ago they did a job on Barcelona in the Sapnish Super Cup, a prize they would have clinched if not for Real midfielder Federico Valverde dabbling in the dark arts, which surprisingly earned praise from the Atleti boss.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) February 17, 2020
There’s nothing like a Champions League fixture to fix the mind, and they’ve been looking the part in this season’s competition. Only Paris Saint-Germain (two) and a handful of clubs — Napoli, Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester City — have conceded fewer goals (five) than Atleti, who have also faced the sixth least shots on goal (58).
Having built his team on aggressive pressing and swift counters it’s no surprise to see them holding a 50.17 per cent average possession. If the masters of raising their game cannot get the job done, then question marks over his future will naturally arise. Simeone, who supervised the club’s move from their spiritual home — the Vicente Calderón — to a brand spanking new headquarter, sees his present deal expire in June 2022.
He may very well fulfil that obligation, as a man of honour would normally do. In the past clubs from far and wide have tempted him away but Simeone made it crystal clear he’d only leave Atleti for one of his other former clubs, notably Inter Milan and Lazio. But neither seem to be clamouring for a new coach given their present managers are battling for this season’s Serie A title with Juventus.