When Diego Simeone took charge of Atletico Madrid in December 2011, the club had little to be positive about. The situation was nowhere near as bleak as around a decade earlier, when Atletico suffered relegation to the second tier after almost going into financial ruin. But 18 months after winning the Europa League, it increasingly looked like that triumph was a one-off rather than the start of a sustained spell of success.
Atletico appointed Simeone, who had represented them as a player between 1994 and 1997 and then again between 2003 and 2005, in place of Gregorio Manzano. The board had dismissed Manzano with Atletico a lowly 10th in the La Liga standings and soon after they had been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Albacete of the third tier. Some managers would have written off the remainder of the season, but not Simeone; the 2011/12 campaign instead ended with Atletico as Europa League winners and fifth-place finishers in Spain’s top flight.
That was just the start. The Copa del Rey was added to the trophy cabinet the following year before Atletico stunned Spanish soccer by winning the La Liga title in 2013/14. They also reached the Champions League final that year and were minutes away from beating Real Madrid, who needed a last-gasp equalizer from Sergio Ramos to take the match to extra time, during which they scored three times to claim the trophy.
Atletico suffered a similar fate two years later when they were again beaten by their crosstown rivals in a Champions League final, this time on penalties. They have not got that far in the competition since but have remained competitive in La Liga, twice finishing as runners-up and remaining in the top three every year since 2012/13. The same is expected of Atletico this term, which is Simeone’s 10th season (nine of which have been full seasons) at the helm.
Throughout his time in charge, the general approach at Atletico has been the same. The Colchoneros routinely post some of the best defensive numbers in Europe, with Simeone preaching the importance of clean sheets and solidity at the back. Atletico plays with discipline, organization and a compact shape regardless of the precise formation used on the day. They are aggressive and intense, alternating between pressing opponents high and sitting back in a low block. They are proficient at set-pieces, although Atletico has never been prolific goalscorers in open play under Simeone.
The former Argentina international has done a magnificent job with the Spanish capital’s second club. However, there were some murmurings of discontent following their Champions League quarter-final defeat by RB Leipzig last month. Atletico were the favorites in that match but was guilty of being excessively reactive and passive, an approach that ultimately cost them. On that occasion, Simeone’s tactics worked to his team’s disadvantage.
That is the tension that encompasses where Atletico Madrid find themselves almost a decade on from Simeone’s arrival. Their long-serving manager, who long ago entered club folklore as one of their best ever bosses, bases his approach on his side being underdogs. And in a sense they still are: Real Madrid and Barcelona, their chief domestic competitors, are far wealthier than Atletico and duly find it much easier to recruit world-class players. These structural advantages make it difficult for Atleti to compete – they are third-favorites to win the La Liga title this term but are still available with DraftKings Sportsbook at odds as long as +1100.
Yet at the same time, Atletico is among Europe’s biggest clubs. The latest edition of the Deloitte Money League lists them as the 13th-richest side in Europe by revenue, while Simeone is the highest-paid manager in world soccer. In the vast majority of matches, Atletico will contest this season, it will be they who are at a financial advantage. Increasingly Simeone’s footballing philosophy, which claims sacrifice as its central value, is out of step with that of managers at similar-sized clubs across the continent, who tend to promote aspiration through creativity and front-foot soccer.
None of which is to say Atletico cannot enjoy success using such methods – they have done so before and may well do so again under Simeone. When it comes to making a team more than the sum of its parts, the 50-year-old is arguably Europe’s foremost coach. It should not be forgotten how far Atletico have come under his tenure just because we have grown accustomed to them finishing in the top three in La Liga.
Yet Simeone is unique among the world’s top managers in that it is unclear who would employ him were he to become available. Most club owners and presidents prefer a different style of soccer to that which can be found at the Wanda Metropolitano.
As such it is hard to see the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona or Paris Saint-Germain seriously considering a coach who prioritizes defense and will only accept players who are willing to die for the cause. Even a club like Chelsea, which has employed managers with similar values in the past, appears to be moving in a different direction, as evidenced by their appointments of Maurizio Sarri and Frank Lampard.
It has been speculated on many occasions over the last few years that Simeone might be ready to move on, yet it is still difficult to imagine him anywhere other than Atletico. The Argentinian himself must know that his level of control would almost certainly not be as high anywhere else, and giving up a club that is already molded in his image would be a difficult decision.
At the same time, elimination from this season’s Champions League by another non-heavyweight like RB Leipzig would again lead some to suggest Simeone has taken Atletico as far as he can. How long, they might ask, can the 13th-richest club in Europe claim to be perennial underdogs?
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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