FourFourTwo's Jonathan Fadugba looks at the man behind Atletico Madrid's recent renaissance, Diego Simeone....
The best football managers have always possessed a unique ability to mould a club in their own image. From Shankly to Ferguson to Guardiola: over the course of history, the greatest coaches tend to wield such influence that they are able to shape the entire organisation into a reflection of their own personality and vision.
“Leaders establish a way of being in their organisations, through what they think, believe, say and do,” says Mike Carson in his book The Manager – Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders. “They impart some sort of fingerprint – some DNA- that is intimately associated with their character, which drives the behaviours and performance of their people and leaves a clearly defined legacy.”
Diego Simeone is only 43, yet already the battle-hardened Argentinian is demonstrating a trait prevalent in the game’s greatest and most-experienced coaches.
Since joining Atletico Madrid as coach in December 2011, Simeone has transformed an ailing club into one with a winning swagger. When ‘El Cholo’ was appointed, Atleti were in dire straits: without a domestic trophy since 1996, going through managers quicker than geeks through gadgets and endowed with a near-institutionalised spirit of defeatism.
“There was too much negativity about in the psyche of the supporters and that fed into the players,” concedes Diego Forlan in the December issue of FourFourTwo magazine. “They were used to failure.”
Look at Atleti now, however, and the mindset has completely changed. In less than two years, the Argentinian has reversed the defeatist streak, winning the Europa League, UEFA Super Cup and Copa del Rey in the process. This season, Atleti have won 11 of 12 league games and top their Champions League group with a 100% win record. Simeone has turned them into serial winners.
Perhaps as impressive as the trophies Simeone has one - if not more so - is the way in which ‘El Cholo’ has completely rebuilt the team to his own specification during that period.
The one-time bustling midfielder, who described his own playing style as that of a man “holding a knife between his teeth” has bestowed the same fearsome, frenzied passion for success upon Atleti’s setup as that which he carried through an illustrious career. Simeone’s values, energy and enthusiasm have proved infectious.
The team play with wild-eyed intensity; harrying and chasing in midfield to restrict space and suffocate their opponents’ attacking instincts. Lining his team up in a compact 4-4-2 formation, Simeone demands aggression and commitment from his players, and gets it.
Atletico lead La Liga for tackles per game this season, up from third in the division last term – and in Gabi and Filipe Luis, Atleti boast two of the league’s top four tacklers.
They also have that same snarling, combative, slightly sinister streak Beckham-botherer Simeone was known for during his playing career as a rugged defensive midfielder. Atleti are fourth in La Liga for fouls per game, with Mario Suarez and the fiery Diego Costa – the personification of Simeone on the field – two of the league’s guilty top ten for fouls committed.
“Atletico has always been a team packed with big players, international players,” said Zenit Saint Petersburg’s Argentinian defender Cristian Ansaldi before they met Atletico in the Champions League in September. “The change Simeone has brought about is in giving the team aggression. Atletico never won anything because they only had quality and lacked intensity and aggression. This is what Simeone has managed to bring.”
Simply put, Simeone’s Atletico Madrid is a true relection of himself.
To get a true sense of this, you need only listen to his players. For the most vivid reflection of how Simeone’s players unequivocally embrace and embody his own vision is in the words they speak.
Simeone’s core beliefs are in the strength of the collective, continuous striving for self-improvement, fierce commitment to the cause and approaching the game like there’s no tomorrow. “I try to live each day like it’s the last, with enthusiasm and ideas which I communicate to my players. Football is my life,” Simeone tells FourFourTwo. “I always think they are going to fire me tomorrow, so I only focus on winning on Sunday. I live that way.”
"Experience makes you read situations better. I am intuitive. Before the Super Cup final, I did not like the behaviour of two players. I told them what I thought. If I see something I say it. Before I used to hesitate more. The more spontaneous I am, the better everything is."
The question is; has the once renowned hot-head calmed with age and experience?
"When the team win, a coach can be calm," Simeone says. "When my team wins I am also calm. But look at Mourinho when he screams to celebrate a goal and slides on his knees like in the Champions League against (Manchester) City.
"I feel I have evolved, my experiences as a coach have helped me because I have been in different situations. At Catania, it was about fighting relegation. I was not used to seeing five players in the middle, but I’m glad I did. I learned to adapt."
Adapting is something Atletico's players had to do upon Simeone's arrival, but their commitment to and admiration for their manager is clear. Dip into any interview with a Rojiblancos star from the last twelve months and you can guarantee you'll hear them not only eulogise their manager, but also echo his philosophy in the very words they speak.
“[Simeone] has been important not only for me, but the whole group,” says Diego Costa, La Liga’s joint top scorer, a player given such a revitalising new lease of life by his manager that Brazil and Spain are locked in an international tug of war for his services.
“He’s changed our way of thinking. He asks us to get into every single game as if it were the last one of our careers, demanding you leave all you can on the pitch, always showing that there’s room for growing. It wasn’t like this before his arrival.”
“We are not a team of individuals,” midfielder Arda Turan tells FFT. “We are a collective group of hard working players who always want the best for the team. We battle for every ball during every minute of each match and you can see even in training matches that nobody wants to lose. We have a great team spirit, like a family.”
“Every match is a final for us,” enthuses the Turkish international. “We take every game as it comes and approach it with the mentality of a final and see what happens. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have big ambitions, I can assure you we do.”
Simeone’s spontaneous mentality, his treat-each-game-like-it’s-your-last outlook, is ubiquitous in the words of his players. “Cholo came with very clear ideas,” says Koke, a revelation in Spain and one of the country’s finest young players. “He came with the philosophy of taking it game-by-game. We believed in him and things are going well.”
“We train in different ways according to the next opponent,” Juanfran stated ahead of Atletico’s game against Austria Vienna. “But always as if it were a final.”
Juanfran, along with Koke and Diego Costa, are but three examples of another string to Simeone’s bow – the ability to significantly improve those with whom he works. El Cholo is squeezing the best out of his players.
“I have no doubt that we will see Cholo as one of the world’s top coaches for many years to come.”
Gabi, club captain and an Atleti fan who describes Simeone as his ‘hero’ for the joy the Argentinian brought as an Atleti player in the mid-90s and early 2000s, is another poster boy for the manager’s powers of player enhancement.
“Cholo is still in the early of his career as a manager but he is already one of the top coaches in Europe,” says Turan. “I have no doubt that we will see Cholo as one of the world’s top coaches for many years to come.”
Currently second in the table, one point behind Barcelona and five above rivals Real Madrid, can Atletico win the league or even the Champions League? The bookmakers are certainly starting to change their tune. Atleti were priced 66/1 to win La Liga and 80/1 to win the Champions League in pre-season, but such is their form, both odds have now been slashed dramatically - almost as if via the knife from between Simeone’s teeth.
There’s a definite sense ‘El Cholo’ is building something special at the Vicente Calderon.
Get your hands on the December 2013 issue of FourFourTwo, as we get the inside story on Atletico Madrid's Rojiblancos revolution. We also sit down with Frank Lampard, get on a bus with Bosnia's barmy mob, pick out the best pranks gone wrong and much, much more. Subscribe in print or for iPad now.