In December 2011, Atletico Madrid were struggling both domestically and internationally and the boardroom made a desperate, but brave decision to appoint their former player Diego Simeone as the new club manager, despite his lack of managerial experience.
This would prove to be a turning point, the start of perhaps the best period in the club’s long and successful history.
Enrique Cerezo, the club’s president, a man not know for his public appearances remembered watching Simeone play for Los Rojiblancos and believed his strong, never-say-die character could install a winning mentality and help the club escape the relegation zone – a sign of how far they fell after winning the Europa League in 2010.
The bet quickly paid off, as Simeone brought instant changes to Atletico Madrid, which were soon transformed into a well-organised, defensive side that surged up in the league standings. The season ended with Atleti securing a seventh-placed finish, as the club narrowly missed out on the fifth and sixth place due to poor head-to-head records against Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao.
More importantly, Simeone led his team to an unlikely Europa League trophy in his first season with the club. Despite his insistence on a hardworking defensive style, the Argentinian manager turned Radamel Falcao into one of the best strikers in the world and the Colombian duly returned the favor, netting 12 times in their Europa League run, including twice in the final, where they beat fellow Spanish side Athletic Bilbao 3-0.
The following year, Simeone continued building from the back, as he stick with his 4-4-2 formation focused on counter-attacking, despite widespread criticism from managers and pundits that believed this was an outdated style of play that could never really work in the modern game.
However, Simeone paid no attention to the critics. He demanded that his players play “like gladiators” and refused to play anyone that wasn’t ready to “die on the pitch” for the team. This turned Atleti into one of the most intense and passionate teams in Europe, famous for their defensive output, much like Juventus in Serie A.
In the end, even though Atletico’s performances in Europe and the league were somewhat flat and uninspiring, the 2012-13 season represented yet another success story for the steely approach of Simeone, as Atleti managed to claim the Copa Del Rey trophy, stunning their greatest rivals Real Madrid in the final.
The 2013-14 season will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the best in the club’s history. This is the year when Simeone further adapted his style, as he let the opposition have even more possession, but required his players to start aggressively pressing whenever the opponents made even the slightest mistake. This meant that his forwards would essentially play from the midfield areas, while the central midfielders dropped deep, almost in line with the center-backs.
Needless to say, Atletico struck gold once again, as they won their first La Liga title in 18 years and perhaps more importantly, symbolically ended the domination of Real Madrid and Barcelona in the league, proving that other Spanish teams could challenge for the title as well.
In the Champions League, Atletico somehow played even better and with even more intensity, as they shocked Barcelona and Chelsea to reach the final, where they eventually lost to Real Madrid, despite outplaying their city rivals.
Unfortunately, this defeat will go on to haunt Los Rojiblancos, who will lose to Real Madrid in the Champions League in both of the following two seasons. The second defeat in the Champions League final in 2016 was particularly painful for everyone involved with the club and Simeone admitted that this was a low point in his managerial career.
For the first time since taking over Atletico, Simeone said that he was seriously considering leaving the club, despite picking up numerous individual awards – most notably, the IFFHS World’s Best Club Coach medal and his third La Liga Coach of the Year award. People argued he had taken the club as far as he could and it seemed the time had come for a change and a new manager that could skip over the final hurdle and bring the Champions League trophy to Atletico Madrid.
However, the Atleti president insisted that no one could do a better job with Los Rojiblancos, because no one else could possibly understand the club as well as Simeone. With fans turning up in support of Simeone, the Argentinian eventually agreed to extend his stay in Madrid.
In the age of modern football, in which football clubs change managers more often than not, this was a powerful statement of intent from the Atletico boardroom, which wanted to build a football dynasty and a worldwide brand with Diego Simeone at the helm of their project.
Now, considering the fact that Atletico are set for yet another successful season under Simeone, with 2nd place in La Liga, ahead of Real Madrid, all but secured and a potential Europa League trophy in the bag, few people can argue against Enrique Cerezo’s decision.
Unless something changes radically, Atletico Madrid have a bright future ahead of them.
In the end, we can only conclude that Atletico and Simeone are a match made in heaven – Atletico may have allowed Simeone to flourish and become one of the best managers in the world, but Simeone has already repaid his debts by turning a struggling Atletico side into one of the most consistent and greatest European clubs.
What do you think? Is Diego Simeone one of the managerial greats in the world of football?