I cannot quite describe it. Since the day I started loving football, I always appreciated the squads that played ‘total-football’ or something comparable that’s attractive. Examples are the Brazil squad from 1998-2006, Ajax 1995, Ronaldinho’s Barcelona, The ‘Invincibles’ (Arsenal), Spain 2008-2012 and of course Pep’s and Lucho’s Barcelona. I always taught it was in my blood. To love and appreciate the ‘total-football’ concept which Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff introduced and afterwards was further developed by figures like Pep Guardiola and Aragones.
However, since Diego Simeone took over from Gregorio Manzano in 2011, my ‘limited’ appreciation started changing. It was him who made Atléti finally win against rival Real Madrid after 16 years without a win and even let them lift the Copa del Rey in the rival’s stadium Santiago Bernabeu. From that moment I saw something, that I strangely can enjoy a lot. Which makes it even stranger is that my absolute favorite club is FC Barcelona. A squad that believes in a philosophy which is completely different from the one ‘Cholo’ introduced at Atlético de Madrid. While Barcelona intend to have the ball all the time, Atléti prefers to sit back and let the opposite team have the ball most of the time.
One mistake that a lot of ‘total-football’ lovers make, is call Atléti a team that only defends or kills games. But it is more like Simeone lately said: “The one with the most or best soldiers doesn’t always win, it is about the one who uses his soldiers in the best way”. To put it another way, Atlético might have the players to play in another way, but this is the way that works for them and clearly brings them success. Simeone already has brought the Liga to the Calderón, as well as the Copa del Rey and the Europa League/UEFA Cup and he was about 1 or 2 minutes away from winning the Champions League in 2014.
I have to admit. Sometimes I wondered to myself why I appreciate this Inter/Chelsea alike football, which I always despised. But then I started paying some more attention to Simeone’s tactics and the history of the club Atlético de Madrid. And there are many differences between those clubs. For example, the managers at Chelsea/Inter had several millions, if not billions, to spend in the years that they coached their squads. They also had already a very strong experienced squad at their disposal, not at all comparable to Cholo who took over and changed the club’s history. One other example is the way of playing, Inter/Chelsea absolutely showed no intention in playing, it was more luck than actual quality which gave them the UCL. The category ‘killing games’ suits them better, I think.
Simeone changed Atléti’s finances by winning prizes, introducing new talented youth or young players like Koke, Saul, Giménez, Lucas, Savic, Griezmann, Correa, Oblak etc., and developed his system during his years in the Calderón. At first he needed to find his working way and build a squad which could compete with the big two: Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. 2014 was the year in which all the pieces fit together. He perfected the 442 system and managed to knock out Barcelona very deservedly. Also, one very important thing, he managed to win the League after 18 years and he did that in Camp Nou!
One other thing which Simeone does is change the mentality and end product or level of his players. Antoine Griezmann has changed from a talented flank player at Sociedad to a goal-racking central striker that runs and defends a lot at Atlético de Madrid. Koke grew to a crucial player in midfield with his passes, vision and passion. And probably the best example is Lucas Hernández, who got his chance in this season when Godín and Giménez were injured. He fitted in perfectly and showed the same ruthlessness as his Uruguayan teammates. It seems like Cholo has something in him that gives him the ability to turn young, talented players into great or at least useful players for his system and squad.
The last thing I want to bring up is the versatility of Simeone and his squad. For example, in his first two years he had strong power strikers, like Falcao and Diego Costa. Next to those powerful target men most of the time he had a more dynamic player, like Adrián, Villa or ‘Cebolla’ Rodrigúez. In the last two seasons this started to change a bit. At first with Mandzukic who didn’t quite fit his system, he lacked speed and creativity. And at the start of this season Jackson Martinez was signed with high expectations which he strangely couldn’t fill. He was sold to China and Simeone started to experiment with two more mobile strikers like Ferreira Carrasco, Angel Correa/Luciano Vietto, the back to his old self Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann.
This kind of unwanted and unexpected change, has made his tactics even better. While he had to give up the advantage in the air and the use of a target man, he now got the possibility to press more upfront and be more unpredictable in his beloved counters. Even though they sit back, when they have the ball they know exactly what to do and how to do it. Players like Saul, Griezmann, Koke, Ferreira Carrasco and the new Torres add a lot to Atlético’s passing game. In this season they started the short passing and combinations in midfield. Something that makes their counters even more dangerous and also gives them the ability to keep the ball sometimes and position themselves good enough to create dangerous opportunities. The counter-pressing is something which makes me ‘enjoy’ Atléti even more. It started with the hard-won 2-1 victory from FC Barcelona in Camp Nou against Atlético de Madrid.
In this game Atlético closed all the passing ways towards Busquets, probably the most important player in Barcelona’s passing game. This excellent pressing resulted in Barcelona playing the long ball, an early 0-1 lead and a big chance at 0-2. More later in the game Barcelona managed to turn the game around, but even with 10 men (Filipe Luis kicked Messi real awful and got a deserved red card) Atlético managed to let Barcelona suffer and it looked more like the 2-2 would come than the 3-1 for Barcelona. After that game it seemed like Simeone finally found the way to beat Luis Enrique’s Barcelona, and he did in the Champions League by using his new counter-pressing technique, which managed to stop the wonderful trio MSN. The season is not over and in about 4 weeks we will know if Simeone once again did something remarkable in Atlético’s history.
It may be said. I never would have expected that I could appreciate a defensive vision on football. But it is the way in which it is executed, that I appreciate a lot. Add Simeone’s passion and the build-up of his success, which I closely followed since he ended the 16-year loss streak of Atlético against Real Madrid, and you get something which could go down into history as one of the most remarkable football successes. I hope this explained my vision on my admiration of Simeone and his Atlético de Madrid. By the way, do not mistake my appreciation for being a fan, i am still a Barcelona fan till death of course!