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  • Writer's pictureAlex Brotherton

Cholismo is back: How Diego Simeone inspired Atlético Madrid’s resurgence

The scenes of jubilant celebration at Old Trafford were in keeping with those witnessed on countless other great European nights over the past decade. The two-thousand or so away fans, housed in the corner of the revered but decaying temple of football, celebrated wildly at the full-time whistle, serenading their heroes just like they had done in Munich, Liverpool and London. Kept in by the police for over 45 minutes after the game, they sang and they sang until the players re-emerged from the dressing rooms to thank them once more.

Special Champions League nights on the road are nothing new for Atlético Madrid, although in this most inconsistent of seasons, a triumphant trip to Manchester was far from guaranteed. What unfolded in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16 tie was exactly what 70,000-odd Manchester United fans had feared: a limp performance typical of their side’s recent struggles was in stark contrast to the gritty, defensively resolute and cunning display from Atleti. ‘Typical’ Diego Simeone football is what they predicted, and that is exactly what they got.

Only followers of Atleti, and even Spanish football in general, will know that that performance was in no way typical of Los Colchoneros this season. While the stereotype is more than a little reductive, it is true that the success the idiosyncratic coach has brought to the club over the past 10 years has been built on defensive solidity and being very, very hard to beat. El Cholo’s Atleti has never conceded many goals, the players encouraged to play with their hearts primarily, as well as their heads, and to make life as difficult for the opposition as possible.

That central part of Atleti’s identity has deserted them for most of the current season. Defensive solidity characterised their title win last season just as it did in 2014, only the likes of Diego Godín, Thibaut Courtois and Juanfran were replaced by Stefan Savić, Jan Oblak and Kieran Trippier. Atleti leaked just 25 goals on their way to clinching the title on the final day, yet with nine matches still to play this time around, they have already conceded 36. That figure had never before topped 31 in any of the nine full seasons Simeone has been in charge. The attempted evolution in style only partially worked last season, now it was showing real frailty…

After a 1-0 defeat at home to rock-bottom Levante in February, Atlético’s sixth loss in 10 league outings that left them fifth in the standings and 15 points off top spot, Simeone staged something of an intervention. He outlined to his players the severity of the situation and the possibility of missing out on the top four and Champions League qualification. Three days later, his side responded with an impressive 3-0 win in Pamplona against Osasuna. Cholo drew on his famous motivational skills to rally the troops.

“We had a chat after the Osasuna game about taking important decisions, and from there the group has given everything,” he told reporters after the win in Manchester. It doesn’t sound like much, but it clearly worked. Atlético are now on a run of five consecutive league wins and are unbeaten in seven in all competitions, a consistent streak inconceivable just a month or so before.

There are of course tactical reasons for the drastic upturn in fortunes. Simeone has opted to use a back three more often with wing-backs, a system that has afforded his side more defensive security than a flat back four was doing. January arrival Reinildo Mandava has also done a lot to build defensive resolve, the Mozambique international settling in extraordinarily quickly as the left-sided centre-back in the back three.

At the other end of the pitch the previously inconsistent João Félix finally seems to have found a rich vein of form, scoring five goals and assisting two more in his last five league outings. The 22-year-old is slowly repaying the patience and faith his coach has shown in him since his big money move in 2019. His rise has coincided with the fall of Luis Suárez; the hero of last season has looked out of sorts all year, but only in recent months has Simeone dropped him. Loyalty is important to Cholo, but ultimately results have to come first.

Above all, though, the mentality of the Atleti players appears to have shifted for the better. There seems to be a genuine belief, even in moments of struggle, that they will emerge from the other side. Earlier in the season that was lacking, and Simeone deserves credit for rediscovering that confidence.

“Motivating a squad of footballers is absolutely one of Simeone’s greatest qualities,” says Euan McTear, author of Hijacking LaLiga, the story of how Atlético upset the Barcelona and Real Madrid duopoly to win the 2014 title. “If you watch him on the sidelines, it might seem like he lives every moment with the same intensity, but it’s not really that way in the day to day. Simeone is capable of identifying what the big moments of a season are and geeing his players up for them. He did that towards the end of last season, greeting all the players with the phrase ‘we’re going to be champions’ every morning over the final month of the season.”

It might seem a cop-out to suggest that Atleti’s ills have been cured by a few rollockings from Simeone, but when you’re sat in the same room as the former Atlético midfielder, you begin to understand how the aura of such a man can inspire a group of players. “I believe in effort, commitment, I believe right up until the final moment,” he said in Manchester. That kind of mentality will serve him and his players well in the next round of Europe’s premier club competition.

Atlético and their followers will be back in Manchester just three weeks after they left, this time to face Pep Guardiola’s City in the quarter-finals. Last season’s finalists will provide a different and almost certainly tougher challenge than their neighbours, but it would be foolish to underestimate Atlético when they have their swagger back.

“Atleti have no problem being underdogs and no problem sitting deep if they have to,” says Euan. “They’re starting to become solid in defence once again, while their counter-attack is frighteningly good right now with João Félix learning how to play in transition. If City get frustrated and over commit, watch out.”

It will be a huge ask for the Atlético players to give their travelling fans another magical evening in Manchester, but if any team can frustrate arguably the best side in Europe and take a result back home for the second leg, it’s a Diego Simeone team. There were murmurings of discontent and questions over his future just a couple of months ago, but once again it looks like there is no coach in world football better suited to Los Colchoneros than him.

After sprinting down the tunnel at full-time in true Cholo style, the manager emerged back into a floodlit Old Trafford to join his players in saluting the travelling supporters. The connection between fans and coach looked as strong as ever, and so did Diego Simeone. From here on in, they are not to be underestimated.

For more coverage leading up to Atleti's clash with Manchester City, follow us at @LaLigaLowdown.

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