Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on 27 April, 2016. It is being republished in light of Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid making it to the final of the Champions League after knocking out Bayern Munich.
"There is a virtue in this team. We are a group of honest workers who can win or lose. We make ourselves strong with the tools we have. Today, once again, we have won a tremendously difficult game." – Diego Simeone
Yes, once again. The win over Barcelona in the Champions League quarters was another feather in Diego Simeone’s cap that must sit easy over his well-gelled hair. ‘El Cholo’, a nickname he acquired at the age of 14 for his energetic play, has made a habit of upsetting the odds. The last five seasons at Vicente Calderon have brought one remarkable achievement after another. In this time, he has also flipped what had become conventional wisdom in elite football.
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, through their astronomical success, had established possession football as the desired model. Jose Mourinho swam furiously against the tide but he could only place himself as an exception to the rule. Since Barcelona’s Champions League win in 2009, teams that viewed possession as important to their success dominated domestically and in Europe. Reactive football occasionally shone through, particularly in Internazionale (2009-10) and Chelsea’s (2011-12) successful continental campaigns, but it was seen as a style for those who could not play the idealised way. Mourinho’s abrasive dispositions gave rise to a perception that his football could work only with defence-minded players engaged in a siege mentality.
Yet, there was sophistication to the defensive system espoused by the Portuguese manager that remained under-appreciated. It needed an underdog story to alter the negative perceptions that stuck to reactive football. A story that has been scripted with passion and intensity by Simeone. This is not to say that Simeone’s model is the same as Mourinho’s; indeed there are differences. But the manner in which the transformation has been engineered at Atletico Madrid is a story worthy telling.
It needs to be stressed that this is not just about being an underdog. Mourinho won the Champions League with Porto in 2004 and that earned him little favours among the football fraternity. Sure, humility does not come naturally to the Portuguese manager but it’s not a trait one would identify with a lot of managers. The key, it could be argued, lies in the cult of hyper-masculinity and obsessive determination that has been nurtured by Simeone at Vicente Calderon.
The win over Barcelona was an appropriate demonstration of the Simeone model. Barcelona had defeated Atletico Madrid 2-1 thrice this season before the sides met for the second leg of their quarterfinal. Faced with the defending champions that possessed the most feared attacking lineup in the world, Atletico responded with a performance that was a near-perfect representation of Simeone’s ideas. The Barcelona players were hounded by a pack of wolves with disproportionately large lungs. Hardly allowed any time on the ball, the usually calm Catalan side was forced into mistakes. Mistakes that culminated in a 2-0 win for Atletico.
Skipper Diego Godin finished the match with a black eye. It would be fair to claim that his teammates would have come out suffering as well. The players threw themselves into strong tackles, harried the opposition players and even took the occasional blow to the body when necessary. This was all too reminiscent of Simeone the player. Few players have the luxury of remaking a team in their own image. Simeone has achieved that glorious dream.
Yet, it’s a project that has had to adjust to its financial reality. Every summer, Simeone has lost players who were vital to his plans. The players who departed Atletico during the Argentinean manager’s tenure – Diego Costa, Arda Turan, Falcao, Thibault Courtois (on loan from Chelsea) among others—left a massive hole in the squad. Yet, Simeone responded by successfully reworking the composition of his team but not its manner. If anything, the side has become more Simeone-like. It’s a brand of football that is built on playing cautious football. “If you keep the ball, you’re likelier to make a mistake”. This maxim has informed the active rejection of a possession-based approach.
Yet, few have criticised Simeone’s ideas. Like Mourinho’s sides, Atletico is built to make use of the decisive moments. A tough, grappling defensive line balances the burden on the attacking unit. Atletico have conceded only 16 goals in 35 La Liga matches this season. Moreover, no side has allowed fewer goals in the 2015-16 Champions League than Simeone’s team (five). Led by the immaculate Diego Godin, the defence gives few chances and is always ready for a scrap.
In the semifinal against Bayern Munich, Atletico will encounter the anti-Simeone – Pep Guardiola. Guardiola’s teams possess an obsession for the ball. They truly are the polar opposite of Atletico. However the difference in world-views has not led to an animosity-ridden relationship between the managers, like the one shared by Mourinho and Guardiola. Simeone, through his impassioned demeanour and inexhaustible determination, has made reactive football cool. Even if Atletico lose to Bayern, Simeone will continue to battle the odds and return to these stages again. Atletico has inspired underdogs to push boundaries. Their fight will go on. After all Simeone, and Atletico, never know when they are beaten.