Sunday 19 November 2017

Diego Simeone: Why order and true faith are the secrets of the Atletico Madrid manager's success

Atletico Madrid's coach Diego
Atletico Madrid's coach Diego "Cholo" Simeone

Rob Bagchi

To quantify how ardently Atlético Madrid’s players believe in their manager, Diego Simeone, one only has to ask the unyieldingly abrasive centre-half Diego Godín. “We are with him to the death and also he with us and that shows on the pitch,” he said last winter.

“We all know the path we have to take: he marks the way for us and we go with him until the death. That is how you achieve things.”

Godín is Uruguayan and Uruguayan footballers traditionally defer their reputation for hard-nosed, ruthless endeavour to no nationality, least of all their neighbours from Argentina who were unable to win their first World Cup until 28 years after Uruguay had won their second. But to hear Godín speak of the bond Atlético share with their manager, an intense fidelity that sounds more like something from Harry Potter or Death Cab for Cutie or, indeed, a blood oath than the typical quasi-Musketeers’ rallying cry, explains the scale of Simeone’s achievements and gives a flavour of his tone.

Atlético, an historically erratic club defined in their dark days by what or, more accurately, who they are not, have been transformed into one with coherent identity and serious purpose fused by industry, grit and integrity.

Yes, twin, agonisingly late defeats by of all teams Real Madrid in Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016, have stung acutely and conceiving new resolve from shattering disappointment is never as straightforward as it seems.

After a few days of uncharacteristic wavering last summer about whether he could lift the club once more, Simeone settled on staying and now says: “Every time we play that competition and hear the anthem, the music brings pain. That’s our motivation.”

Spain’s third most successful side have often been competitive in the past but seldom consistently so. Simeone’s methods and charisma have changed all that.

The quest for Champions League redemption has given them another mission, but far from being slaves to their emotions, what Jock Stein used to call “the fiery cross” school of management, Atlético are patient, cerebral, utterly self-possessed and unrelenting. Such qualities make the scale of Leicester City’s challenge in the first leg of their quarter-final at the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday night truly daunting. 

For a start Atlético do not deploy a steel-trap defence so much as a silk pillow over the face approach. In 21 home Champions League ties since 2013, they have conceded only five goals and kept 17 clean sheets.

Simeone, a man with as colourful an anthology of quotations as any in the game, once characterised the ideal attitude of his side as “playing with the knife between the teeth on the pitch”. It’s an arresting image and one that could often have been applied to him in his playing days, but Atlético are not as buccaneering as the metaphor suggests. They defend to the last and have the courage, as the manager, says “to play in small spaces”, to endure long spells without the ball.

In his first press conference as Atlético manager back in December 2011, Simeone said they had to become “an annoying team to all their rivals”. He used the adjective “molesto” then and it is informative that it can also be employed for “unwelcome”, “irritating” and “troublesome” because that is exactly how they transformed themselves into Europa League, Copa del Rey and league title winners, combining positional discipline, nerve, a thumpingly refreshing appetite for needle and the poise to break dynamically.

If that sounds familiar to students of European football history with its distinct echoes of great Serie A sides that preceded the Arrigo Sacchi revolution at Milan and those who remained true to the venerable principles over subsequent decades, Simeone acknowledges the debt he owes. “In terms of courage and ideas,” he said, “a lot about my Atléti comes from Italy.”

Simeone first moved to Italy in 1990 shortly after his 20th birthday, joining Pisa from Vélez Sarsfield. Brought up in Palermo, Buenos Aires, his nickname ‘Cholo’ screams of streetwise, “villa miseria”, South American toughness but in fact he had a relatively privileged upbringing by contrast with many of his national team contemporaries. His father, a heating salesman, and his mother, a hairdresser, encouraged him to leave for Europe, instilling a dogged ethic of hard work and self-improvement that still inspires him.

“My parents,” he said, “raised me to play football like a soldier.”

At Vélez he learned about standards. “They taught me values,” he said. “Wash your clothes, respect, order, everything that helps you in life. From order you start living better.”

Pisa chose him from a list of possible recruits, the story goes, because the president was captivated by his steely gaze in the accompanying photograph. Simeone scored in Pisa’s second game which put them briefly top of the table but they were relegated at the end of his first season in Serie A and finished sixth in Serie B the next year.

That summer he joined Carlos Bilardo, Argentina’s 1986 World Cup winning-manager, and Diego Maradona, the side’s captain, at Sevilla, staying a second season after they had both left before moving to Atléti at the age of 24 in 1994.

Before his first match in the red and white stripes, he played for his country at the World Cup, forming a dream midfield trio with Fernando Redondo and Maradona until the latter’s positive test for ephedrine after their two opening victories demoralised the team and ruined their campaign.

Simeone’s first season at Atlético conformed to the pattern set by the capricious nature of the club’s owner, Jesus Gil, at his very worst when impatience and outrage conquered reason. Five managers came and went over 12 months until safety from relegation was belatedly assured by a point with a 2-2 draw at Sevilla in which Simeone scored, they finished 14th and Raddy Antic ignored his gentleman’s agreement with Valencia and agreed to work for Gil.

Antic pushed Simeone much further forward and he responded with 12 goals in the Double-winning campaign. They led the league after all but three of 42 games, beating Barcelona home and away and again in the Copa del Rey final. It was their first title for 19 years and their last for 18 until Godín’s header earned the point against Barca in May 2014 that made Simeone an Atléti champion as player and manager. 

Italy in the mid-nineties was still Europe’s elite league and Simeone was keen to return, leaving Atlético after three seasons to replace Paul Ince in Internazionale’s midfield in the summer of 1997. As a manager he has given his players a cause to believe in, turning their quest into an underdog’s crusade. It’s what he responded to as a player and Inter, despite the enormous sums Massimo Moratti was investing in players, had been overtaken in their total number of titles by Milan in the seven years since their last championship.

Gigi Simoni, the Inter manager, adopted a “dogs of war” midfield strategy with Simeone alongside two of Aron Winter, Ze Elias, Javier Zanetti or Benoit Cauet, empowering them to stifle the opposition and create opportunities for Il Fenomeno, Ronaldo, up front in an approximation of the peek-a-boo style.

They won the Uefa Cup but finished runners-up in the league, left forever to rail against the referee Piero Ceccarini, whose failure to award them a clear penalty at Juventus (when they were one point behind the leaders with four games to go) before giving their hosts one just 15 seconds later provoked a parliamentary debate so heated it had to be suspended.

Simeone’s son Giovanni, who plays as a striker for Genoa, says his father “holds Inter in his heart and loves them” but he was forced to leave in 1999 when Moratti, still in pursuit of a title to rival those won under his father’s ownership, used him as bait to sign Christian Vieri from Lazio.

He was managed by Simoni for only a year but the catenaccio evangelist has left a profound impression on Simeone, which is more than can be said for David Beckham at the 1998 World Cup in a moment some English judges still see as emblematic of his ineradicable sneakiness.

The Argentina captain’s over-reaction to Beckham’s rash “retaliation” during the last 16 World Cup tie against England in Saint-Etienne was more opportunistic than deceitful, more pragmatic than fraudulent. Almost any experienced player, especially one bred in Buenos Aires and schooled in La Liga and Serie A, would have done the same and, like Simeone, hold anyone who deemed it shameful to be either asinine or naïve.

If he learnt his love for order from his parents and structure from Simoni, his coach at Lazio, Sven Goran-Eriksson, was once the arch guru of sophisticated, managerial pragmatism. You can hear the much-maligned former England manager in Simeone’s pronouncement of his coaching philosophy, tempered by all his other influences. “I’m not the kind of coach who has strict, set ideas on football,” he said. “The idea is to win. I don’t know any other way. It’s also about finding the best characteristics of each player out on the pitch to reach the final objective, which is to win.”

And with Eriksson at Lazio he did win, earning the Double in 1999-2000 a year after they had been pipped to the Serie A title on the final day. In the end they won the championship by one point from Juventus, Simeone’s match-winning goal in the Stadio delle Alpi on All Fool’s Day 2000 ultimately proving decisive.

Simeone left Italy in 2003 to go back to Atléti but returned for five months in January 2011 to take his fifth manager’s job with Catania, who were 15th in Serie A, three points above the relegation zone, with 18 games left.

He had suffered a blip after short-term success in each of his first three coaching jobs back home in Argentina where he stabilised Racing but left after four months, led the ‘black-hearted b-------' of Estudiantes to their first title for 19 years in 2006 but was gone 11 months later and won his second title with River Plate but again did not see out a year with Los Millionarios, whose boardroom profligacy had impoverished the club.

He had been named manager of the year but was beginning to look like a man who could deliver outstanding shock therapy but not long-term, sustainable health. Failure at champions San Lorenzo in another post that lasted under a year left him out of work for nine months until Catania, a team with 12 Argentinian players in their first-team squad, summoned him in January 2011.

He transformed the Sicilians' shape, opting for a narrow 4-3-1-2 and after a slow start they won six of their seven remaining home games from February onwards, drew with Juventus in Turin and beat Brescia away to finish 13th, 10 points clear of relegation.

At River Plate he had made full use of his inheritance of the on-loan Alexis Sánchez, Ariel Ortega, Radamel Falcao, Diego Buonanotte and Augusto Fernández by playing 3-3-1-3 but still conceded only 13 goals in 19 matches, displaying that for him flexibility in his attacking system could not compromise his core defensive principles based on compact shape, aggressive central pressing and never ceding middle ground.

At Catania his set-up was less manifestly adventurous and he drilled his players to be comfortable without possession, fostering tremendous team spirit as their confidence in his ‘hit and run’ strategy flourished.

That has been his gift in each of his seven manager’s jobs: essentially he is the player whisperer whose constant invocations of “passion”, “sacrifice”, “effort”, “heart”, “humility” not only beat like war drums in their ears but give his squad a canon they can trust in, one that demonstrably delivers success even when he regularly has to sell players.

He cuts an uncompromising figure in black on the touchline and can be uncompromising as he was when he upbraided Raphaël Varane for lack of respect after the 2014 Champions League final defeat. And so is his chief lieutenant, the former Argentina goalkeeper German Burgos. During one Madrid derby in 2012 when Jose Mourinho approached the Atlético bench to remonstrate about something, Burgos made reference to the occasion when Mourinho poked the then Barcelona assistant Tito Vilanova in the eye. "Be careful," 'Mono' Burgos warned Mourinho. "I'm not Tito, I'll rip your head off."

For all that Simeone is empathetic too, forging elemental bonds with his clubs, identifying himself so strongly with their cause that he naturally channels the fans' pain and ambition towards a common purpose. Simeone has proved he can go to any club and make a difference but he understood and gave so much to the ones he played for that his very best prospects would be served next at Inter, Lazio or with Argentina, disappointing his many suitors.

But first there is still work to be done at Atlético, a stunning new stadium to move into next season and his burning desperation for his club to win the Champions League, a desire that supersedes his own to become the first non-European manager to win the European Cup since his compatriot Helenio Herrera 52 years ago.

That has been his gift in each of his seven manager’s jobs: essentially he is the player whisperer whose constant invocations of “passion”, “sacrifice”, “effort”, “heart”, “humility” not only beat like war drums in their ears but give his squad a canon they can trust in, one that demonstrably delivers success even when he regularly has to sell players.

He cuts an uncompromising figure in black on the touchline and can be uncompromising as he was when he upbraided Raphaël Varane for lack of respect after the 2014 Champions League final defeat. And so is his chief lieutenant, the former Argentina goalkeeper German Burgos. During one Madrid derby in 2012 when Jose Mourinho approached the Atlético bench to remonstrate about something, Burgos made reference to the occasion when Mourinho poked the then Barcelona assistant Tito Vilanova in the eye. "Be careful," 'Mono' Burgos warned Mourinho. "I'm not Tito, I'll rip your head off."

For all that Simeone is empathetic too, forging elemental bonds with his clubs, identifying himself so strongly with their cause that he naturally channels the fans' pain and ambition towards a common purpose. Simeone has proved he can go to any club and make a difference but he understood and gave so much to the ones he played for that his very best prospects would be served next at Inter, Lazio or with Argentina, disappointing his many suitors.

But first there is still work to be done at Atlético, a stunning new stadium to move into next season and his burning desperation for his club to win the Champions League, a desire that supersedes his own to become the first non-European manager to win the European Cup since his compatriot Helenio Herrera 52 years ago.

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