When I began writing this, I had planned to give you an update on Atletico Madrid’s struggles. Before last Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Getafe, they had won only one of their last five matches, inertly tapping out of their La Liga title defense. Already bounced from the Copa del Rey by Barcelona, the only hardware they have a decent shot at is the Champions League trophy which, last season, evaded their grasp at the last moment due to a Sergio Ramos header – still, their chances are remarkably slim there as well.
You’d think a club that encountered wild success in 2013-14 should be hanging its head right about now. But let’s examine the state of Atletico with a wider scope.
Yesterday they made the best possible move for their future by signing their fiery and intelligent manager Diego Simeone to a new contract ending in 2020. If you want to be a top-notch European club, you have to hold on to great coaches like a life preserver. It helps that Simeone’s philosophy and style seem to mesh with Atletico’s so wonderfully. Transfer rumors linked him with Manchester City just days ago, but his tough defensive mind and City’s free-spending offensive fireworks would’ve felt like an awful mismatch.
Simeone’s all-black-everything suits, slicked-back hair, and fierce, unshaken disposition translate directly to how his Atletico teams play. They make sure nothing comes easily for the opponent in their half, holding back before unleashing mighty counterattacks. Despite only ranking 9th in La Liga in both shots per game (11.5) and possession rate (49.5%), Atletico scores the third-most goals, behind the two traditional Spanish powers, Barcelona and Real. On the defensive end, they lead the league in tackles per game and give up the second-least number of shots per game (behind Barca). This means that despite having the ball less than half of an average match, Simeone’s men only give up around 8 shots in that game.
Of course, Simeone’s history at Atletico Madrid makes him the perfect leader for this perpetually overlooked club. The man they call “Cholo” was a defensive midfielder on their last La Liga-winning team in 1995-96. After he moved on to Inter, Atletico dropped to the second division in 2000. They would climb back up the ladder a couple seasons later, with Simeone rejoining the squad in 2003. When the club came calling with an open manager’s slot in 2011, there was no way Simeone was turning it down.
What’s amazing is that Cholo has won almost everything a coach can in just a few short years. His Atletico teams have lifted the La Liga, Copa del Rey, Supercopa, and Europa League trophies, while coming mere minutes from their highly-coveted first Champions League title. In recognition, Simeone is the back-to-back winner of the La Liga Coach of the Year award. So his history with Atletico is stellar, but what about the future, now that he is slated to be around until the end of the decade?
Well, he has folded in new additions Mario Mandzukic (12 goals, 5 assists) and Antoine Griezmann (14 goals) excellently this season. Considering he manages the poor man’s Madrid club, fitting in experienced castoffs from bigger clubs (Mandzukic) and young studs from smaller clubs (Griezmann) will be a significant aspect of his job. Another part will be losing some of his best to those bigger teams, like before this season when Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois, and Filipe Luis – key guys for his squad — all left for Chelsea. The important thing will be remaining in contention for the Champions League even while losing valuable pieces like that.
This season his team has slipped a bit, particularly lately. Their shots per game are down and they have given up 23 goals with ten games to go after only conceding 26 all of last season. Valencia is up a point on them for third place, while Sevilla lurks four points behind. Still, their remaining league fixtures aren’t overwhelming, with Villareal and Barcelona the only top six teams left on their schedule.
In the Champions League, after their narrow shootout win over Bayer Leverkusen, they were matched up with the crosstown los blancos in the quarterfinals. Where most would shudder, Simeone and his men know full well they can move on without a miracle or an act of God. Since that Champions League final heartbreaker, Atletico has beaten Real three times and drawn twice. Essentially, they have big brother’s number.
As the New York Mets to Real’s Yankees, it’s important for Atletico to have an identity, and in Simeone, they have one of stability and discipline. He said it himself after announcing he would remain with the club, saying, “We’ve worked hard to secure this stability that we currently have. I have full trust in my staff and they give me the strength to carry on.” If you’re an Atletico fan, those words should fill you with resolve. This guy isn’t afraid of anything.