Number Four: Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid

Words By Blair Newman Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 29, 2018
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NO.4: DIEGO SIMEONE (ATLETICO MADRID)

Win percentage: 6 Position change: 1 Position to value: 1 Knockout points: 12

Points: 20

Stunted by a transfer ban, Atletico Madrid were unable to make immediate additions to the squad last summer. So, with his hands tied, Diego Simeone faced the challenge of getting his side to once again compete with Spanish football’s traditional giants, a rejuvenated Barcelona and reigning European champions Real Madrid, whilst also holding off a resurgent Valencia. As ever, the Argentine rose to the task, guiding Atletico to second place in La Liga, their highest league finish since they won the title in 2014.

What was particularly commendable about this league performance was that it came partly due to good home form in a new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano. Saying goodbye to a ground as beloved as the Vicente Calderon was never going to be easy, but Simeone and his charges handled the transition well; they lost just once and picked up a total of 42 points in their new home compared to 44 in the Calderon the previous season. In all of La Liga, only eventual champions Barcelona could boast a better record in front of their own supporters.

Other than that, there was no major news regarding Atletico’s La Liga showing. As is now customary, they had the best defence in the league, conceding just 22 times in 38 games. As per usual, it was this resolve without the ball that enabled them to establish such a lofty position. Simeone’s classic 4-4-2 remained as compact and organised as ever, and up front Antoine Griezmann – who opted to stay put despite rumours linking him to Manchester United, among others – was given a helping hand by Diego Costa, who returned to his old club in January.

Simeone’s tactics are now firmly embedded at Atletico. He has spent the best part of seven years as the club’s manager and there has been no major evolution in that timespan. Indeed, so ingrained is his philosophy, it is difficult to imagine Atletico playing any other way. This stability is integral to the team’s consistency; every player knows exactly what to do both within their role and within the framework of the collective.

But after failing to pick up a single piece of silverware in the two previous seasons, there was always going to be a threat of a kind of second-place syndrome. How long could fans accept competing without ultimately succeeding? In the end this question was completely irrelevant, as Simeone helped his side to a second Europa League title under his leadership.

After finishing third in a tough Champions League group featuring Chelsea and Roma, Atletico dropped into the Europa League knockout rounds. They overcame their first two hurdles in the competition – Copenhagen and Lokomotiv Moscow – with relative ease, before a good home performance against Sporting Club was enough to see them through to the semi-finals. There they faced yet more adversity.

Up against an Arsenal side fully cognisant of the impending retirement of their legendary manager, Arsene Wenger, Atletico went down to 10 men early on in the first leg at the Emirates Stadium. Not long after, Simeone himself was sent off. However, even as he watched the game standing up from a distance, the 48-year-old refused to panic. Deciding inaction was the safest policy in this case, he opted not to make immediate changes as his side sat in, soaked up Arsenal attacks and countered when they could. This approach was to be rewarded with an 82nd-minute Griezmann equaliser.

Simeone celebrated that goal with a maniacal fervour, almost as if he knew the tie was done in that very instance. If so, he was right to think this way: Atletico won 1-0 in the return leg to book a place in the final against Marseille. The final itself was no great contest, but only because Simeone’s men had too much for their opposition. A battering commenced on 21 minutes through Griezmann, and ended with a 3-0 score in favour of the Spaniards.

The success of this Atletico era is not necessarily best measured in trophies won, but in its constancy. The team, and the tactics underpinning it, are the same as they were several years ago. And yet opponents of the highest calibre continue to struggle to figure them out. Atletico roll on, and Simeone’s ideas remain effective.

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