Five months without defeat and two European trophies. Simeone has really made an impression at Atletico. The fans will hope it long continues.
It is never easy to play in the same city as one of the world’s best sides. You become a second thought or not even that. And even winning the Europa League twice in the past three years has done little to put Atletico above their huge rivals Real. And yet, this season Atletico are currently above their rivals with a game in hand. Win that and they go second behind Barcelona. Even though it’s only four games in to the season, there are reasons to believe that Los Rojiblancos can be a genuine force this season.
For many years it has been the same story for the Rojiblancos. Often seen as the club against the “establishment”, they have been in Real’s shadow both in terms of success and the media.
The past two decades have been a turbulent period for Atletico. Jesus Gill took over in 1987 and reigned till 2003. In that Atletico won La Liga (in 1996) yet were relegated in the 99-00 season and did not get back into the Primera division in 2002. Gill was notorious for big spending in his desire for success and was notorious for bringing hiring and firing high profile managers. Managers like Arrigo Sacchi, Claudio Ranieri and Ron Atkinson all were brought in by Gill, yet did not last long.
Luis Aragones, Spain’s winning coach in 2008 brought the league and cup double in 1996 and it was he who would bring the club back to the Primera division in 2002. Gill’s desire for success meant a story of managerial changes, an issue which was actually counterproductive for the club.
In Gill’s era from 1987-2003 Atletico had over 30 managerial changes during Gill’s reign. A crazy amount which offered the club no stability and which showed a glimpse of the future of football in terms of neglecting the long term sustainability of the club over short term success.
Post Gill and success
In the past five years Atletico have appeared a more stable and thus more competitive side. Under the stewardship of Javier Aguirre the club made the Champions League and began building a reputation for attacking football. Players like Torres, Forlan and Aguero were some of the names which propelled Atletico. However a poor start to the second half of the 08-09 season Aguirre was sacked. Many believed the players were to blame, not the manager. The new man was Abel Resino and he managed to finish 4th with Atletico securing a Champions League qualifying spot. That season Forlan scored 32 goals and received the Pichichi trophy.
However, at the start of 09-10 Resino started poorly and was removed from his position. Atletico went out of the Champions League in the group stage and qualified for the Europa League. Quique Flores came in and although Atletico ended the season 9th, it was to be a huge year for the club as Flores would guide them to success in the Europa League, defeating Fulham in the final. It was the first time since 1962 that Atletico had success in European competition.
The same story arose for Atletico came the year after and Flores was replaced by Gregorio Manzano after another poor run of form. Although Atletico did secure an Europa League spot, that summer would prove to be one of loss for the club. Out went David De Gea, Diego Forlan and their key man Sergio Aguero. The club made a lot of money from these sales and on the final day of the transfer window they purchased Radaemel Falcao from Porto for €45m
However it was a poor start to the 11-12 season which meant another change for Atletico. This change would bring us to the present manager, a move that would be perhaps one of the most important and influential in recent years. El Cholo had returned.
El Cholo returns to the Vicente Calderon
Success in 2010 was down to the impressive Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan partnership, yet last year it was down to one man. And it was not Radamel Falcao(although he was pretty important). In fact it was their former captain, the man who led the side to a league and cup double in 1996, the Argentinian Diego Simeone.
For many in England Diego Simeone is that guy who Beckham kicked in the 1998 World Cup and who cost England the game. Yet for many other football fans, especially those of Argentina, Inter, Lazio and Atletico Madrid, he is the tough tackling midfielder who would drive his sides on. If you didn’t see him play then think Patrick Vieria and you’ll be close.
Since retiring from playing the Argentinian he has managed Racing, Estudiantes, River Plate and Catania. After Manzano was sacked last year Madrid’s President Enrique Cerezo made a bold decision to bring Diego Simeone back “home” after six and a half years. It was a masterstroke as Simeone would be given the time and support from the fans who loved him when a player and it would perhaps give him the chance to build his side for the following season.
Yet his influence happened almost immediately. His first job was to remove Jose Reyes from the club, believing him not to have the desire to work for the team. This decision showed Simeone’s determination and ruthlessness to make strong decisions.
In those initial weeks he worked on making Atletico more organised, more of a team. They showed an improvement in their defensive shape and solidity and began winning matches. A great example of Simeone's work was when Atletico faced Barcelona. On watching that game Simeone got his tactics almost perfect. In the first half he played a 4-4-1-1 and nullified Barca's penetration for a long period. It was an impressive demonstration of Simeone's short term work on the team.
Outplaying, outworking and tactically outdoing El Loco
Simeone had brought what he was a player to the side; passion, determination and fight. He moulded the team in his image in a very short time. It was an impressive and also surprising feat. Although he could not maintain the league form to qualify for the Champions League (Atletico could only finish 5th) he took Atletico to the Europa League final to face the Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao.
That final showed the difference between the managers. Whereas Bielsa stuck to his all out pressing game, Simeone told his side to drop off, stay organised and hit them on the break. Bielsa’s side and players were exhausted from a long season, perhaps also were over hyped and over pressured with the occasion. Like a great boxer, Atletico took what Bilbao threw at them and then pounced. Falcao scored twice and Diego sealed the game with the third. Simeone had brought success to a side which in December seemed lost and divided. He had created a team and made them a success.
The most important piece set to depart again?
Missing out on the Champions League seemed to point to Atletico losing another of their stars. Radamel Falcao has been a revelation since his arrival from River Plate, his €2m move to Porto seems like the best business in football for years and his performances there alerted many to his quality.
Surprisingly it was Atletico who took him from Portugal, perhaps because of the money received from Aguero and Forlan and also because of the relations they have with the “super-agent” Jorge Mendes. The deal to Madrid was reportedly around €45m, half of which was apparently paid by Mendes’ company. The money paid was certainly justified and his performances did not drop from those at Porto.
However it was Simeone who got the best from the Colombian. His counter attack football worked wonders for Falcao as he was afforded space to exploit. Simeone built the side whether intentionally or through design to suit Falcao’s style and effectiveness. Fast paced counter attacks with early balls into the area are where Falcao is at his best.
The summer however made many believe Falcao would be off. He was too good not to be playing in the Champions League and arguably good enough for any side in world football. And yet he did not leave. Although interest from Chelsea was reported there were no moves made for him, and if there was then they did not meet the asking price. A reported €60m.
For Atletico it was a better deal to keep the player than make money. Already Falcao has four goals in the league, a stunning hat trick against Bilbao showed the difference between the two clubs state of affairs. The two Europa League finalists have had very different summers; Bilbao appear in turmoil, with their stars wanting out and their manager threatening to leave with different issues. Atletico however appear more organised, determined and confident than last season.
SuperCup success, outplaying the Champions League winners
The two games against Bilbao and then against Chelsea in the SuperCup were evidence of this. Many have made excuses for Chelsea in that game, believing they did not care etc etc. In all truth they were outplayed, outworked and their manager was tactically outdone.
Simeone was determined to win the trophy and he made sure his players were all set on achieving this goal. Once again the difference was Falcao, a second hat trick in a week showing the world his true world class ability. Yet Atletico were not just a one man team, they were strong, organised and showed class on the ball from the goalkeeper to the forward line.
Simeone’s work was evident in that performance. He has planted belief in these players, he has made them feel that they are winners. He has brought out a determination, a fight and willingness to do what is necessary to win. All characteristics of the manager himself.
What does the future hold?
The key for the club this season must be to reach the Champions League and they must strive for reaching 3rd. Valencia have not started great, yet playing Real and Barca does not allow a great start. However, Atletico seem focused and led by a man who impresses more each game.
Although this past game they threw away a 4-0 lead to win just by 4-3, they were dominant until they lost focus in the final 10 minutes. That slight of concentration may actually help Simeone focus the minds of his players and allow him to stress that the focus and concentration must be kept throughout the whole game.
If they continue this level of performance and importantly if Falcao keeps fit and focused, then expect to see Atletico Madrid in the Champions League next season. Can they hold onto Falcao? Perhaps not. Yet Atletico always appear able to replace one star with a new one. The key for their future may be Simeone and his time at the club. The longer they can keep him, the more Atletico may actually be noticed in Madrid.
When El Cholo (as Simeone is named by the fans) left Atletico after his second spell he left in tears to rapturous applause from supporters. One cannot doubt that if he keeps up the great work he has done so far, the same could happen again. Atletico fans will hope that doesn’t happen anytime soon though.