Watching Diego Simeone, clad in his ever-present black suit, patrolling his technical area, snarling, barking, and leading Atlético Madrid to another Champions League semi-final, was an impressive sight to behold. In spite of this tactical masterclass to dispatch holders Barcelona, Atléti are only third favourites to win the competition. They are one of the most underrated sides in Europe, fittingly managed by one of the most underrated managers in Diego Simeone. Often overshadowed by figures like Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho and Luis Enrique, Simeone’s phenomenal achievements at Atlético Madrid have not been given due coverage.
He took control of a struggling Atlético Madrid side in December 2011 and has transformed the fortunes of the club. During his tenure Atléti they have won five trophies, including La Liga, the Europa League and the Copa del Rey. They have broken the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga despite receiving a fraction of the television money. They have consistently performed despite selling stars like Falcao, Arda Turan and Diego Costa on a yearly basis. And it could have been even more if it wasn’t for Sergio Ramos’ injury time goal in the 2014 Champions League final.
Simeone’s early years as a manager did not indicate a man destined for great success. Prior to becoming Atléti manager he had spells at five different clubs in Argentina, Spain and Italy over a period of five years, bookended by short and disappointing stints at Racing Club. His most successful period was at Estudiantes from 2006-07 where he won a historic league title, but rather than staying to build a dynasty he chose to move on and spells at River Plate, San Lorenzo and Catania were unremarkable. Yet whilst these spells yielded diverse results on the pitch, they played a key role in shaping Simeone as a manager. They bred the man who values work-rate, defensive stability and above all else, results.
One of the trademarks of Simeone’s Atlético Madrid teams is how hard they work as a unit. Inspired by Marcelo Bielsa amongst others, Simeone believes that “effort is non-negotiable”. This ethos has allowed him to construct a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. His players work in a dogged and disciplined manner for a full 90 minutes. Furthermore in building a team unit, he takes measures including encouraging players to sit facing each other during meal times and attempts to create a feeling of camaraderie. The result of this is that when Atléti step out on the pitch they work together like a military unit, rarely winning games from moments of individual inspiration, but rather creating chances like a well-oiled machine.
“effort is non-negotiable”
The effects of this teamwork can be seen even more starkly when Atléti defend. They have conceded just 16 goals in 32 league games this season. Simeone has not always been such a defensive manager. When he began his career he believed in attacking and scoring goals to kill off games but his experience in the 2008 Libertadores Cup as River Plate manager changed him irreparably. 3-2 up on aggregrate in the second leg of their tie against a 9-man San Lorenzo, Simeone failed to shut up shop and River Plate conceded twice in the final 25 minutes. Simeone acknowledges how he changed after this, saying “At first I always wanted to attack. With time I learnt the best ways to think how to win is in your defensive balance.” This change has paid dividends at Atlético Madrid with the team built upon players like Filipe Luis, Diego Godin and Juanfran.
This increased emphasis on defence is mirrored by the development of Simeone’s belief in ruthless pragmatism to secure results. He does not get bogged down in arguments about style and how teams play. He has no favourite formation or player. Simeone instead focuses all his energy on one thing and one thing alone –winning football matches. This ranges from large dossiers on opposition players to checking the horoscopes of potential transfer targets in order to maximise the chances of winning each game. He put it eloquently himself “I prefer to play well than to play attractively.” This was illustrated against Barcelona on Tuesday night as they stifled the likes of Messi and Neymar with aggressive, effective defensive play.
Over the past ten years Simeone has developed from promising yet inexperienced manager to ruthless, pragmatic and brilliant. He has become one of the great managers in world football, and even if the bookies only put them at four to one, I’ll be shocked if we don’t see Simeone lifting the Champions League trophy in Milan come May.