“Se busca rival digno para derbi decente” (Wanted: worthy rival for a decent derby)
This is the saying that Real Madrid fans, madridistas, displayed on every side of the Bernabeu during the Madrid derby until about 4 years ago. In 2011 on December 23rd, Diego Simeone was unveiled as the new manager of Atlético de Madrid.
Atleti are a club with an incredibly proud and fascinating history. Their first home ground was built in the working-class area in the south of the city, and that was the reputation that came to characterize them: a working-class club that plays every minute of every game with an unparalleled level of intensity, passion, and competitiveness. “The Mattress Makers,” as they are sometimes referred to, experienced the most success between the 1940s and 1970s when they won eight league titles, 5 Copa del Rey’s, and their first European trophy. They could not be more different than their city rivals Real Madrid, a club with endless riches. However, after the glory days, little success came their way other than a handful of Copa del Rey’s and a superb league and cup “double” in 1996, which Simeone led as a player. After being relegated to the second division soon after, they returned to La Liga in 2002 and began gradually climbing the rankings.
When Simeone took over in 2011, things were very dim. Although having won the Europa League the season before, Atleti had won just 5 of their previous 16 league games and had been consistently underperforming. In the Simeone era thus far, Atleti have claimed 5 trophies. In 2012 they won the Europa Cup and thrashed Chelsea 4-1 in the Super Cup. They emphatically defeated Real Madrid en route to their Copa Del Rey success in 2013, and most impressive of all was 2014. Atletico won the league as the third horse in a two-horse race on the final match day at Camp Nou and went on to claim the Spanish Super Cup. As if that is not remarkable enough, they were seconds away from showing the planet they were not just the best team in Spain, but the best in all of Europe. Despite all this success, Atleti still pride themselves on being “The Mattress Makers” club. So, how did Simeone manage this incredible turnaround while still maintaining the identity and core values of the club?
Simeone earned his nickname “El Cholo” from a youth coach when he was 14 because of his energetic play and relentless work ethic. Simeone in his playing days was a midfielder with a “tough guy” mentality on the field. He never stopped running and played with such passion and pride that amazed his teammates and his opponents. His approach to soccer regularly summed up in one word, according to the Atleti veteran Diego Godín, is “intensity.”
However, there is much more to Simeone’s approach than intensity. He is one of, if not the greatest, tactician in world soccer. One of his greatest admirers, Michael Robinson, a former Liverpool striker and current Spanish television analyst, explains:
“People know Simeone was a hard player and that Atlético are a hard team, so they think it’s all huff and puff, diligence and defending. But the truth is he’s not at all one-dimensional – he’s very astute tactically and a real admirer of talent.”
This makes sense especially when we look at the 2014 season in which they won the league and made it to the Champions League Final. Atleti never played with a set formation. Often, their 4-4-2, which was really a 4-2-2-2, would switch to a 4-3-3, and in vital games where they had to defend their lead they switched to 5 in the midfield and left a lone forward in the form of Diego Costa up top to chase balls. They changed their tactics three or sometimes four times a game. When attacking, Atleti stretched the opponent’s defense as much as possible, creating lots of gaps and spaces. Then, they played quick, short passes through the created space past the defense. It also helps when you’ve had forwards like Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa, and now a young Antoinne Griezzman to net in the goals. Under Simeone’s leadership though, the defense has won the championships. They scored 22 less than Barcelona and 27 less than Real Madrid in the league in that 2014 season, but conceded significantly fewer than everyone else in the league. Their defense was the strongest in Europe along side that of Bayern Munich that season and still is one of the tightest around.
It is the culmination of a diverse set of tactics going forward, constant defensive discipline, and a seemingly impossible level of rigour and intensity that the fiery El Cholo drilled in the Atleti squad.
Last weekend, Atleti and Real Madrid met again in the Santiago Bernabeu, one of the fortresses of world soccer, but not to Atleti. Well, at least not anymore (before Simeone, Real had won the last 8 league meetings). They became the first team ever to win 3 matches back-to-back at the Bernabeu. In the interview after the game, Simeone smugly stated:
“We take it naturally, to be able to win here,”
When asked to reflect on the transformation of the club since his arrival, he made it clear.
“Historically, this is what Atletico is. Don’t confuse the fans. This is Atletico. Effort, contagiousness, counter-attacks, competitiveness. That’s the way success has always come and we’ll continue that way, no matter what they say. Those who want to change that are going against what Atletico have always been.”
With an incredibly talented squad full of young, promising players like Griezmann, Carrasco, Saul, Oblak, Giménez, Koke, and Lucas Vietto mixed with the veterans in the form of Tiago, Diego Godín, Gabi, and Juanfran, it is hard to see the success stopping anytime soon, even if the rumors linking Simeone to Chelsea prove true. Nonetheless, Atleti are still very much the underdogs in the big games but that is the major key to their success. The team thrives off of that nothing-to-lose mentality, and, while many dislike them for their rough and physical style of play, no one can deny they deserve to be regarded on the same level as Europe’s top clubs.
So yes, “Se busca rival digno para derbi decente.” I think it is safe to say the madristas’ wish wish came more than true.
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