Tuesday 12 November 2019

James Lawton: Simeone would offer an antidote to Premier League culture of excess

Diego Simeone encourages his Atletico Madrid players during their game against Real
Diego Simeone encourages his Atletico Madrid players during their game against Real

James Lawton

There was just one oddity in the now routine batch of lessons for the Premier League from the Champions League action this week. It was that the most powerful of them came not from the surviving semi-finalists but one of the defeated.

It was authored by Diego Simeone, the coach of Atletico Madrid who at the sixth time of asking this season was finally obliged to bend his knee to the reigning champions Real - and only then when his ultra-combative team had been reduced to 10 men and were just a few minutes off extra-time.

Simeone's message was emotional and in line with his announcement that his inclination was to remain the messiah of the fiercely appreciative Vicente Calderon stadium, which has become such a source of fervent challenge to the Galactico culture that has flourished for so long at the cross-town Bernabeu.

Yet every word of it served only to enforce the ever-growing sense that he represents persuasively English football's most pressing need.

It is for a new breed of football hard men, leaders who insist on a set of values at odds with the climate of self-indulgence that has seen the wealthiest Premier League clubs marginalised so critically they couldn't provide one quarter-finalist in world club football's most important tournament.


Simeone - touted by some as the logical successor to embattled Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City and by others as the man to re-create the lost horizons at Liverpool - said he left the scene of defeat with his self-belief and ambitions solidly entrenched.

He declared: "I leave the tournament feeling proud of my team. Again we competed superbly in a competition as tough as the Champions League and to be among the best eight teams in Europe is not easy.

"I was always taught that in this game you have to give your best and you will go home feeling content. I don't have any negative feelings. There would be many coaches in the world envious to have these players."

On the lips of so many of his Premier League counterparts such a statement would surely provoke a gale of ridicule.

How could Pellegrini commend the working ethos of his team after a season which at one stage entered free fall? How could Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers maintain the fiction that the departure of Luis Suarez last summer was a passing hiccup in an inexorable rise to old glory?

It didn't help that it came on the day Ireland's great hope for a more uplifting international future, Aston Villa's exciting prodigy Jack Grealish, was exposed as the latest young Premier League player to sample the potentially perilous fad of inhaling laughing gas. Grealish, like Liverpool's Raheem Sterling and West Brom's Saido Berahino, was not breaking the law. But nor was he offering the untrammelled picture of a sharply focused young professional.

Simeone's hymn was to the value of hard discipline and if there was ever a time when it might be beguiling to the Arab and American owners of City and Liverpool it is surely this one which sees both clubs so dismally separated from the hopes they brought to the season.

The pair were brusquely cuffed out of Europe by Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively, and domestically they have fallen painfully short of expectations. Can a meaningful phone call to someone like Simeone - and maybe Jurgen Klopp or Massimiliano Allegri of Juventus - be far away, if it hasn't happened already?

Both City and Liverpool have been saddled with central and corrosive problems in a season where the overwhelming demand was new levels of confidence and momentum.

All of them, it is impossible not to believe, would have been addressed and resolved swiftly in the cockpit of Simeone's Atletico.

It is inconceivable that the Argentinian would have countenanced the lordly attitude and dire under-performance of Yaya Toure, a catastrophe only compounded this week by the declaration of the player's agent that his client was motivated not so much by his huge contract but the possibility of a new environment and challenge.

Toure's demeanour, his failure to perform some of the basic defensive obligations of any midfielder, however offensively gifted, would have been a daily challenge to Simeone's sense of right and wrong.

Nor would he have agonised over the situation of Steven Gerrard in the fashion of Rodgers. Gerrard would either have been an integral member of the first team - or consigned to the department of fond memories and a sweetheart passage to a Last Hurrah in the less demanding climate of North American football.

Also briskly tackled would have been the divisive effects of Sterling's carefully orchestrated contract strategies and the parody of professionalism paraded by Mario Balotelli.

Such has been the draining of resolve at City and Liverpool which has contributed so much to the granting of a third Premier League title to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea almost by default.

Arsene Wenger, still pursuing his first victory over Mourinho in 10 years of striving, hopes that a ninth straight league win for his Arsenal will at the very least delay the inevitable at the Emirates on Sunday, but he also speaks of such a result representing a triumph of the spirit.

This was still another Premier League claim which withered in the bright white light of Champions League competition.

Arsenal trailed out of the tournament at the hands of Monaco, who were then duly dismissed by the revived Old Lady of Italian football, Juventus, reigning champions and runaway leaders of Serie A.

Interestingly, the hammer of the Juve attack, Carlos Tevez, is apparently homesick for Argentina again. This time, though, he is playing a vital role in the success of his club. The last time he heard the call of the Pampas he simply packed his bags and went missing from Manchester City, after defying manager Roberto Mancini during a Champions League tie.

Mancini briefly swore that Tevez would never play for him again. Then he got out the fatted calf for the return of the prodigal.

Such tolerance, you could be sure as Atletico ran Real so hard this week, would not have occurred under the watch of Diego Simeone.

Nor, you have to suspect, that of Louis van Gaal, the man fighting so hard to recreate the competitive force Manchester United displayed in the days of Alex Ferguson. Maybe the penny is indeed about to drop in football's richest but in some ways least demanding league.

If it is, Diego Simeone and a kindred spirit or two might well be soon to follow.

Irish Independent

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