With Leicester’s title charge the football world is looking for the closest comparison to their eventual achievement. Atlético Madrid’s long-awaited reclamation of La Liga in 2014 has warranted a few shouts. Although the circumstances are different, Leicester are playing in a less competitive environment with a brand of football that took some figuring out from the rest of the league.
Diego Simeone’s Atléti surmounted the colossal challenge of toppling the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly. Options at his disposal weren’t quite as exciting as Ángel di Maria running through the centre or unleashing a constrained Alexis Sanchez. His title-winning team was full of belief – in the manager’s approach, the prospects of the club and their own ability. They’ve lost crucial members of that squad from two seasons ago but have tried to strengthen across the board.
Diego Simeone’s fight to keep Atleti competing has been difficult. Constant squad restructuring has been the most challenging and, by extension, the most impressive facet of his tenure. All the work done at the Calderon could have counted for little if they didn’t improve from their position. But over the five years Simeone’s fighting spirit has not been in doubt once. Cholo Simeone says ‘effort is non-negotiable’ for his teams.
He’s kept desire amongst a core group of players that have lost talented team-mates, are played out of position and have witnessed financial firepower put their rivals back on track. Ed Malyon, in a column for the Mirror, said the ability to play Koke as a wide midfielder and have Griezmann chasing lost causes is what has kept the fire lit in this team. The players know their sacrifices are for the greater good.
Man management on this scale and the dependence on it leaves Simeone’s approach in a somewhat fragile state if exposed to a system failure or stagnation. The Argentine manager hasn’t let this manifest with any concern. There is more of a focus on other aspects like tactical tinkering, making necessary adjustments. He talks to the press about it a lot too, as Sid Lowe mentioned on last week’s TSFP.
Keeping their identity has been important for Simeone to maintain the faith in his style. Within that, the team have managed to evolve and adapt to their strengths. The narrow, industrious framework remains but the forward line has required some tweaking. Simeone previously enjoyed playing a big man upfront to provide themselves as a focal point. This allowed them to get the ball forward quickly, exploiting Mario Mandzukic’s aerial ability or Diego Costa’s hold up play. Koke’s long passing from wide areas and deeper positions highlighted the effectiveness.
Now Atleti’s speed in attack comes more from movement and ball carrying. The purchases of the quick-footed Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Luciano Vietto explain Simeone’s planning, to an extent. Initially he would have had a dynamic player supported by the presence of Jackson Martinez, but that transfer brought no success and he was shipped to China in January. Aleti struggled for goals in the first half of this campaign and over a couple of months Griezmann was scoring every other goal for them. Between late February and December they scored 13 in 11 with over €100 million in attacking options.
Simeone’s firm defensive base allowed him the breathing space to tinker with his forwards, as the team held onto single-goal leads to accumulate points. In stark contrast, Barcelona’s front line were impossible to cope with and were in ferocious form. The Blaugrana’s attack was evidently far superior, MSN were becoming a stronger trio. Now the instability at the Camp Nou has renewed Atleti’s title charge, sitting on level points with the Champions.
“With better footballers,” Simeone once said in an interview, “players who best understand football, who react best to the coach and carry out instructions, that’s the best form of expression for a coach.” Players like Tiago, out injured with a broken leg, and Koke who understand the game have been key members to his recent squads. The challenge for Simeone this season therefore lay in the maturation of the rest of the squad.
Saúl was one of these. Since coming into the side, he’s been afforded a lot of responsibility. In patches this season he’s displayed why that was a suspicious decision. He’s gone against the grain of keeping things simple and not fully understood his positioning at times. Simeone realised he was taking that risk but his faith has paid off. The athletic and aesthetic Saúl has played in defence, midfield and attack this season and racked up more minutes in the league than Iniesta. As ThinkFootball writer Chaka Simbeye details here, the emergence of Saúl has freed Koke.
Koke has grown accustomed to playing as a wide midfielder in the current system. Now operating behind the forward movement of Torres and Griezmann has got him playing the final pass, and currently sits atop La Liga assists chart. Griezmann has been another whose flair has been minimised. Making him simplify his game allows the French forward to do a lot more work off the ball and speed up attacks, both beneficial to Simeone’s sytem.
This season has provided Simeone with one of his toughest tactical tests and he’s overcome them. The Rojiblancos could do the double despite people writing their season off in October. Don Diego’s approach of man-management has worked a wonder and endured time better than any Mourinho or Klopp administration. His squad shows no sign of relenting their demanding approach and the squad rebuilding process has been accelerated.
The core of this side won the league and came within minutes of European glory. They have the experience of being in those positions and know what their manager demands. In such a demanding environment some of the other players might be well-equipped to cope with the toils of season’s end.