It is difficult to overstate the extent of Simeone’s achievements as manager of Atletico Madrid. When the Argentine replaced Gregorio Manzano in the dugout, Atletico were content with an upper-mid table finish for the foreseeable future. Simeone had no intention of settling there, and no doubt spurred on by the star-studded Real Madrid’s achievements, smashed the seemingly impregnable LaLiga duopoly of their city rivals and Barcelona.
Beating the Learning Curve
Simeone’s love for his current club has never been in doubt, short though his playing career with Atletico was. As part of the Atletico team that won the league and Copa del Rey double in 1996, Simeone represented the ideal candidate despite being relatively inexperienced. For that reason amongst others, Atletico’s league title win in 2014 was as life-affirming as it gets.
Indeed, it was not until January 2011 that Simeone would take on his first European gig as a manager. He experienced modest success at that time, keeping Catania in Serie A against all expectations. Though Simeone would spend just five months at the helm of the Sicilian outfit, his efforts would not go unnoticed by Atletico Madrid. Figuring they had nothing to lose, the club saw fit to coax him away from a second spell as Racing manager in December 2011.
At the time of Simeone’s appointment, city rivals Real Madrid were on course for a 30th league title, Atletico were bemoaning a Copa del Rey elimination at the hands of Albacete – a minnow team then two divisions below the Rojiblancos. It was a development that seemed to underline the loser mentality that contrasted greatly with Real’s winning ways.
From Second-rate to Second Coming
Upon his return to the club, Simeone’s impact was immediate, with Atletico staying unbeaten in his first seven league matches, and keeping clean sheets in the first six of those. While February delivered far more erratic form than Simeone’s full opening month in charge, it would provide his first taste of Europa League action, and managing a squad through tricky two-legged ties.
That proved to be no issue, with Atletico winning every single leg and dominating the final. Meanwhile, a late surge in the league after a spring slump saw Atletico miss out on a top-four spot, and with Europa League winners not awarded a Champions League berth in those days, Simeone’s Champions League bow with Atletico would have to wait.
Said wait would last only a year, with Atletico breaking into a podium berth that no side other than the Madrid giants and Barcelona has since managed to permeate. That itself is a major element in the establishment of Atletico standing amongst the usual high-flyers in the Champions League outrights market as seen within spread betting.
A shock elimination by Rubin Kazan in the Europa League was thus rendered moot, but Atletico also broke the glass ceiling by winning the Copa del Rey final against Real, achieving that feat for the first time in 21 years and expunging the existing inferiority complex.
As seasons go, 2013/14 had it all. Simeone did some excellent business in the summer transfer window, utilising his knowledge of the South American pool to bring Jose Gimenez into defence, with the Uruguayan arriving from Danubio – a known producer of top talent. In too came Toby Alderweireld, and up front, a 31-year old David Villa made a curious replacement for the departing Radamel Falcao.
Villa’s arrival was widely questioned, but his tally of 13 league goals made Atletico’s doubters eat their words, and did much to seal the league title. A dream season was so nearly completed by Atletico’s run to the Champions League final, but they would lose to none other than Real Madrid.
Though beaten in that showpiece, Atletico have commanded the respect of European football ever since, qualifying for the Champions League almost as many times in nine years under Simeone as they did in the 60 years prior to his appointment.
Simeone: On par with Mourinho?
Football’s fan-driven popular culture dictates that certain managers belong on a ‘god tier’, with Ancelotti, Ferguson, Mourinho, Klopp, Guardiola and Zidane amongst them. If Simeone is not yet amongst that rarefied group, then he is tantalisingly close to being universally considered so.
Having done so much to rescue Atletico from obscurity, the perception of Simeone is of a manager who can blend the best of old and new-style management within a setup. For instance, the 4-4-2 formation – which occasionally shifted into a 3-3-1-3 or 4-2-2-2 during 2013/14 – shows a desire to value both the traditional strike partnership, and the modern reinvention of the attacking/inverted winger.
By staying true to those dual merits within a fluid formation, but one which will always defend by attacking as true European giants do, Simeone has ultimately garnered a well-deserved reputation as a manager who plays to win. The legacy he wishes to create within the striped half of Madrid is already underway, and the summer acquisition of Joao Felix from Benfica also has the markings of a great investment.
As a young number ten with years of development ahead, Felix will – literally and metaphorically – be the nucleus of Atletico’s most devastating attacks for years to come. By playing alongside elders such as Diego Costa, the sense of dynasty that is typically the hallmark of every successful European club is once again palpable at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium.