Passion. Commitment. Fight. All philosophies that Diego Simeone has instilled into his Atletico Madrid team, during his 8 year reign. Philosophies that Simeone himself displayed during his playing days.
With nothing less than 100% expected from his players, Atletico have become one of the best organised and disciplined teams in Europe. A team many would fear playing.
However, following arguably the worst few months in his tether, people have started to question whether ‘The Simeone effect’ has lost its way.
A footballing cloud has darkened Madrid over the last few months. Real Madrid had their season torn apart in the space of 15 days. Crushing home defeats to Barcelona and Ajax saw them limp out of the Copa Del Rey and Champions League respectively. In between this, a 2-1 defeat away to Girona all but ended their La Liga title challenge.
As focused as the man himself is, even Simeone would have found it difficult not to crack a sly smile at the demise of their city rivals. Little did he know that before his smile even had a chance to disappear, Atletico would be following Real, and losing 2 chances of silverware in the space of 4 days. It was however the manner in which they were eliminated, that raised question marks over Diego Simeone and his future.
In February, we saw what Atletico were all about. A deserved 2-0 win in the 1st leg of the Champions League against Juventus put them in the driving seat. This was an Atletico team that boasts defensive experience, only matched in Europe by the team they had overcame in the 1st leg. The thought of them conceding two goals in Turin admittedly seemed difficult to believe. At least it seemed difficult.
This Atletico side are a shadow of the team they were, and the way the team performed over both legs in a 3 week period, almost replicates the transition of the team over the last 3 years.
At the electric Wanda Metropolitano, they were organised, well drilled and in control of the tie. The experienced back 4 made Ronaldo non-existent, the midfield was dominant, Simeone was frantically urging his players on and demanding even more. The night felt as if we were going back in time and watching a repeat of the 2014 season. A season in which Atletico won La Liga title at the Nou Camp, and finished runners up in the Champions League.
What we witnessed in Turin three weeks later was a complete contrast. Atletico were slow, turgid, disorganised and unable to keep possession, a theme they have shown all too often this season in the big games. Simeone appeared far less animated than usual, grimacing as he watched his side’s European chances fall apart in front of his eyes, seemingly helpless to know how to prevent the inevitable Juventus comeback.
The grimace was certainly aimed at Ronaldo, who repeated Simeone’s famous ‘Cojones’ celebration from the 1st leg. Ronaldo is a thorn in Madrid’s side, as this defeat continued the stat that has seen Atletico Madrid knocked out of every Champions League knockout stage they’ve been in since 2013/2014, by a team containing Cristiano Ronaldo. As much as the Number 7’s brilliance shone through that night, Simeone’s reluctance to change the approach has to take the blame for the defeat.
It was important for Atletico to attack in Turin, particularly for the first 20 minutes. An early goal would have certainly killed the tie, requiring 4 goals from Juventus. The truth is, Atletico did nothing to start the game on the front foot. They had their backs to the wall from the first whistle, allowing Juventus to grow in confidence and believe they could turn it around.
They had no interest in scoring, just protecting what they had. Even when Ronaldo headed home, and it was clear at half time the comeback was well and truly on, Simeone did nothing at all to change things, and paid a heavy price for that.
With European glory gone, Atletico still had hopes in the league, albeit slim. With an unpredictable Spanish season throwing up some surprise results, as well as leaders Barcelona still having an eye on the Champions League, it was difficult to rule Simeone’s side out. Just four days after the nightmare in Italy, a 2-0 defeat at Bilbao all but ended their La Luga hopes, and with that the season.
Following the defeat in Bilbao the following weekend, one of Atletico’s most experienced players Diego Godin told Spanish press, “It wasn’t so much the fact that we lost that’s sad. It’s the fact that we weren’t Atletico”. The Uruguayan’s comments proved the point that was clear from the outside, in which this team has lost it’s way. No aggression, no intensity, no organisation. Simeone’s philosophies that have been etched into his teams, had faded away like dust.
The question now for the club, and president Enrique Cerezo is why. And how they can move forward. For me, Simeone has actually taken this team too far, and they have become victims of their success.
The turnaround has been sensational since his appointment in 2011. Atletico finally won their first title since 1996, and once again are competing with Barcelona and Real Madrid domestically, as well as making a stand across Europe. The evolution of the club has been better than expected, but I believe this has been a reason for the downfall of the last few years.
More players have joined the club, better players and even younger players. Thomas Lemar, Rodri, Kalinic, Morata and Correa are the most expensive faces that were signed in the summer. All of these players technically, have the ability to make a difference. The concern is whether or not these players want to play in the style of a Simeone team. These aren’t players that will get into the oppositions face, nor will they want to have to defend even harder from the front and press more.
They generally do not seem like players who will buy into the Atletico identity that has given them the recent success. An identity that seasoned and experienced internationals, such as Godin, Juanfran and Koke have all followed. Summer acquisition Thomas Lemar was brought to Madrid from Monaco for a reported £63m. Their is no doubting his skill and technique to take on players, however if one of his runs was to be unsuccessful, is he the type of player that would run 40-50 yards to win the ball back from the opposition? Something that Simeone would usually expect from his players.
Looking at major European sides, we have seen Bayern Munich and Real Madrid undergoing overhauls following a few seasons in which their dominance has faded away. It’s clear that Atletico need to follow suit this summer.
Atletico’s back four have been fantastic for Simeone, solid over the years and a key part of the success he’s had. Juanfran and Godin are prime examples. Both starters against Juventus, the left side of Atletico’s defence therefore had a combined age of 67, something which will certainly show as a weakness when marking Ronaldo. These players aren’t getting any younger, and it certainly looked as if their legs had started to go.
It will be a very interesting summer for the club, and an important one. Expect big changes in regards to the players. I do expect Simeone to stay at the club, as much as reports have linked him away and with a move abroad. The new stadium has seen larger attendances, and money is expected to be available for him.
The recruitment must be key, ensuring he gets the players he believes are right again for the club and it’s identities. His tenure may seem like it has rode its course, but by going back to basics, Simeone will be looking to get that spark back, and get his team competing in all competitions again.
Written by Tom Winch
Follow Tom on Twitter @winchy33
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