The world’s best-paid coach leading a team whose chances of a top-four finish in Spain are by no means a given is a situation which has logically raised doubts about the future of Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid. His team have been wildly criticised, some fans even whistling Simeone and his captain Koke, but to call for his head is simply a ludicrous claim.
The club’s most successful manager ever, Simeone has led this team through its greatest era. Now it is embarking upon a new one, a challenging one, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that he is the right man for the job. Just as it was not easy when he arrived at the Estadio Vicente Calderón, he has brought his team on leaps and bounds whilst moving into their new home at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano. Remember, "Cholo" made them champions.
In 2020, his side is back almost where he began: way behind the top two, struggling for confidence and looking devoid of ideas. Yet, they have Simeone in the dugout - a man who inspires belief. That is the thinking of the vast majority of Atlético Madrid fans even today, as they see their side grind out underwhelming results week in, week out.
Sure, it’s not exactly been the perfect season. Atlético Madrid have failed to match the pace of Real Madrid and Barcelona in LaLiga, they even found themselves outside the top four until very recently, as well as crashing out of the Copa del Rey to Segunda División B side Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa in humiliating circumstances. European football has been better by comparison. Atleti emerged second from a tough Champions League group with Juventus taking top spot, and the round-of-16 draw has pitted them against a rampant Liverpool side. When looking at why, it’s quite clear to see that Atlético’s issues lie in attack. Alavés, down in 14th, have scored the same number of goals as Atlético. Their two strikers, Joselu and Lucas Pérez, have a combined cost of €5 million. The rigid approach and stubbornness of the man in charge to change that system means that Átletico have all too often relied on moments of individual brilliance from the likes of Ángel Correa, whilst midfielders like Koke and Saúl, once at the heart of the team’s attacking play, are overwhelmed with defensive duties. In the absence of Diego Costa through injury, others have stepped up into the target man role in attack, but none are natural fits. And Simeone refuses to change.
Again, this points to the way in which Simeone manages his offensive signings. The likes of João Félix and Thomas Lemar both set new club record transfer fees, but neither has quite fit into the system properly and that is down to the tactics of the coach. Defensive work is the priority, so they haven’t had the freedom to roam that was afforded to them at Benfica or Monaco. Looking further back, whether it’s Kevin Gameiro, Mario Mandžukić or Jackson Martínez, there is no shortage of centre-forwards and wingers who have come to Madrid only to disappoint.
Away form has been worrying too. Having won just three games out of 12 on the road in LaLiga, Atlético rank barely mid-table with just 15 points won from a possible 36 when not at the Wanda Metropolitano. Time and time again, opposition teams find a way to get beyond Atlético and they find it impossible to fight back. Without the confidence of their support behind them, they seem to lose their shape more easily and perhaps even more importantly, lose their hope. They’ve come from behind to win just three times all season, and the only time it didn’t happen at home against a side from the bottom five was against Barcelona on neutral turf in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final. The fighting spirit that came to typify Simeone’s team has disappeared.
The most significant concern has been squad management, and this one does lie at the door of the coaching staff. Simeone’s trusted confidant and fitness coach who pushes his players hard is Óscar "El Profe" Ortega, the 61-year-old who prepared for the 2016 Champions League final by running laps around the pitch at the San Siro. Yet, since then, he’s been accused of going too far. Over the past two seasons, the team have averaged more than 30 muscle strains by January. Such physical pressure on the players is simply unsustainable, especially with such a limited squad.
Germán "El Mono" Burgos, Simeone's assistant manager, is another trusted figure. He is expected to depart at the end of this season to try his own luck in the top job elsewhere. Whilst there has been no sign of tension or a fall-out, it does not paint the picture of stability that clubs would prefer when facing an era of transition. So, why should Atlético stick with him? In simple terms, it’s not his fault. Recruitment has been poor and primarily down to mismanagement. When the pressure has most been on club president Enrique Cerezo and CEO Miguel Ángel Gil Marín, they have let their coach down. It was evident in the summer that the team’s persistent issue from 2018/19 was the lack of a clinical striker. Álvaro Morata’s arrival had meant that it was not the disaster it may have been, but a replacement for Antoine Griezmann was required. To spend €126 million on João Félix, an unproven teenager, was always going to be a gamble. And in a summer when a gamble was already being forced given the defensive turnaround, proven experience in attack was what was required. Simeone’s reported insistence on bringing in Edinson Cavani in January only goes to reinforce that idea.
Simeone is a coach who builds his team from the back. Having one of the world’s best goalkeepers (if not the very best) in Jan Oblak makes that an easy starting point. This summer, Simeone lost his first choice right-back, two of his four central defenders including his captain and his first choice left-back. With only injury-prone duo Stefan Savic and José María Giménez and inconsistent full-back Santiago Arias continuing from last season, he certainly had his work cut out. Yet, they’ve done the job. Only Real Madrid have conceded fewer goals this season.
He’s a man with a long-term plan and whilst the success appeared to come quickly when he was appointed, he is now leading the side through a transition into a new era. In his own words, “When I talk about transition I do it from a boy like João Félix, who is 19 years old, and another like Griezmann, who left and is 27; and when I talk about transition I say that we have to renew as we did every year since I arrived to compete in each game to give the best we have.” This is no easy task, and it is one that the board must be patient with. Simeone has a plan, he’s brought in young players and is training them in his system. It’s not something that will come overnight, and whilst he would almost certainly have preferred a more gradual transition, few can doubt that he is the best man for the job.
It is also worth remembering here that Diego Simeone is a figure who unites Atlético Madrid fans more than any other. And we’re not just talking about people currently employed by the club. This is a man who came in with the team more concerned with survival than title races. This is a man who was iconic as a player. This is a man who has led the club to success beyond their wildest dreams. This is a man who has been in charge for the greatest moments in his team’s history. And this is a man who will leave on his own terms.
Could he walk?
It is hard to envisage that he would ever contemplate another role in Spain, whilst he would demand patience and a chance to implement his philosophy elsewhere. His values make it seem unlikely that he would go to an "oil-rich" club like Manchester City, yet he would demand a team with a big reputation. Manchester United’s instability is unlikely to appeal, Bayern Munich may not grant him the power he would want, Paris Saint-Germain’s focus on attacking flair wouldn’t combine well with his approach...all of which means that all roads lead to Italy.
The most likely option is that Simeone will leave the Wanda Metropolitano to return to Inter Milan. With the Italian side fighting for Serie A and seemingly better than they have been at any point since the Jose Mourinho era, Antonio Conte’s job seems safe for now. Simeone may look back on last summer and wonder what could have been. What next? Simeone doesn’t look keen to leave. And he shouldn’t. But it’s clear that this side requires heavy investment in a mix of experienced and proven talents and young players to add depth. Whether he receives the backing he requires to do so could determine how long his patience lasts. The failed pursuit of Cavani in January was followed by excuses, but a centre-forward in the summer must be a priority.
Whatever happens, Simeone will leave by the “puerta grande” as the Spanish say. He will not crow out a beaten hero, sacked or booed out by his own fans. He will depart as a club legend. Crucially for him, he has the backing of his fans, keen to repay the loyalty that he has shown the club when offers have come in recent years. This is the start of a new era for Atlético Madrid and it is arguably Simeone’s greatest test yet. But there is no better combination to achieve success for either party than to see him continue in the dugout at the Wanda Metropolitano.
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