ATLÉTICO Madrid and Manchester United meet in the UEFA Champions League last 16 and both clubs are, to a certain degree, in need of fresh direction. United continue to ponder on how their future can look, while Atlético are uncomfortable reigning champions in Spain. In these circumstances, it is difficult to determine who will emerge victorious over the two legs.
The future of both Atléti’s charismatic coach Diego Simeone and United’s stand-in or interim boss (delete as appropriate) Ralf Rangnick is somewhat uncertain and an exit from the Champions League, at a relatively early stage, will hasten any decisions around their immediate security. For Atléti, however, they have reached an “elephant in the room” discussion point with Simeone. What’s next for the club after two La Liga titles in eight seasons, and does their Argentinian manager need a new challenge? Do Atlético Madrid need some changes to their DNA?
Atléti without Simeone is like United without Ferguson, Arsenal without Wenger and Messi without Barcelona. All three situations did take place, but nobody wanted to even consider the end of the journey. Simeone and Atléti is a similar story, but every era comes to an end, even the great ones. To ensure the departure of an institution doesn’t leave a club mortally wounded requires succession planning.
Simeone has been at the club for over a decade and in that time, Atléti have become one of Europe’s elite, albeit sitting on the fringe. They have a great stadium, a squad full of talent, a strong reputation for player trading (just look at how many top players start out with them) and they have succeeded in a league dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona for decades. A league title win in that landscape carries a lot of very significant weight. Simeone’s code hasn’t always been to everyone’s taste, but they are hard to beat and have remained competitive for a decade. Most importantly, they do not fear their cross-town rivals or Barca like they used to.
Since 2011-12, they have finished in the top three nine times and have reached two Champions League finals and won two Europa finals. Simeone has now managed the team for close to 600 games and has a 59% win rate. Such a solid managerial career maintains the impressive record of the combative midfielder who won 106 caps for Argentina and played for Inter, Sevilla, Atléti and Lazio, among others.
The question is, can Simeone keep the Atléti bandwagon rolling on and really put Real Madrid and Barcelona in their place? For much of his time as coach, Simeone’s approach, pragmatic, a shade cautious and bordering on hard, has been a thorn in the side of Spain’s big two. There may be less pressure to win trophies on an annual basis at Atléti, but the modern game demands a club looks forward constantly at the next triumph. If the corporate world’s ethos places pressure on companies to keep increasing profits, football has a similar attitude towards winning silverware. In other words, for Atlético to remain part of the elite, regular trophies are the order of the day.
This season, they have not worn the crown of champions very well. For the first time, Simeone’s method doesn’t seem to be working so well and there have been some rumblings of discontent in the dressing room, notably from young Portuguese striker João Félix, who has spoken out about the team’s malaise, hinting that everyone knows where the problems are. Naturally, such a cryptic comment implies Simeone is the issue, but his outburst may also be a way to get a move from a club that paid € 126 million for his services. Some journalists are speculating Simeone is starting to lose the dressing room, a dangerous rumour as this is usually the first step towards a manager leaving a club.
Simeone is normally an excellent motivator of players and highly animated, so much so that his team-talks often see him overcome with emotion. José Mourinho, no shrinking violet himself, calls him a “competitive animal” and his jack-in-the-box style is undoubtedly intimidating for the opposition. He usually has total belief in his players but after the shock home defeat by bottom-of-the-table Levante, Simeone turned on his squad. While some reports suggest the club is looking now at a short-list of replacements, the message from those close to the club insist the men in the plush seats, Miguel Angel Gil Marin and Andrea Berta, are backing Simeone. Despite this support, Simeone recently said, “Some day I will have to leave, everything starts and ends.” His current contract runs to July 2024.
It is a surprise that Simeone has not been tempted away from Madrid, although his name is always mentioned when a major job becomes vacant. Considering a host of prestigious positions have become available at clubs like Chelsea, Real Madrid (!), Barcelona, Milan, Inter, Bayern, Tottenham and Arsenal, Simeone is either well paid, very happy or comfortable. Or all three.
The situation will not last forever, but given his long spell at Atléti, some might wonder if he has left it too late. He’s 52 this year, so he still has plenty of mileage, but can a coach who has developed his own, somewhat formulaic style, adapt to a new club with a different ethos? Manchester United, for example, a club he has been linked with, are not over enamoured about the tactics and strategy of some coaches in Spain, Italy and Portugal.
Simeone’s side are 15 points behind league leaders Real Madrid, so the title has gone, but they desperately need to stay in the battle for a Champions League place. They’re fifth at the moment, level on points with an in-transition Barcelona, who recently beat them 4-2. The Seville pair, Sevilla and Real Betis, are currently in second and third. If they successfully come through their tie with Manchester United, some of the pressure on Simeone will ease up, but a couple of defeats in La Liga and the Champions League could spell disaster for the man called “Cholo”.