AS TEMPERS FLARED during a particularly feisty Madrid derby at the Bernabéu in December 2012, Atlético Madrid assistant manager Germán Burgos directed a threat towards José Mourinho that would unnerve even the most confrontational of coaches. “I’m not Tito – I’ll rip your head off,” the towering Argentine said, pointing at Mourinho with a familiar look of rage in his eyes.
He was referring to former Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova, who was poked in the eye by Mourinho a year earlier and retaliated with a well-restrained push. Burgos, though, is almost the antithesis of Vilanova, who – before his untimely death – was generally known as an imperturbable and stoic individual. When Mourinho was asked about the event after the game, he replied: “Who is Burgos?”
Diego Simeone’s right-hand man has understandably earned a reputation as one of football’s most fiery characters in recent years, not least for his touchline antics involving the often provocative Mourinho. He was again infuriated in a Madrid derby in 2014 while watching on from the dugout, when Diego Costa was denied a penalty having been felled by Real defender Álvaro Arbeloa. Burgos’s reaction was to confront referee Carlos Delgado Ferreiro with such aggression that six men were required to subdue him. The result was instant banishment to the stands and a three-game touchline ban.
This natural attraction towards controversy and confrontation wasn’t a trait mutually exclusive to his coaching career, however. As an enigmatic, imposing goalkeeper during his playing days, Burgos – nicknamed El Mono (The Monkey) – once picked up an 11-game ban while playing for Mallorca in 1999 for punching, and knocking unconscious, Espanyol’s Manuel Serrano, claiming that he had been called a ‘Sudaca’ (a racist slur term for a South American).
All of these incidents, while proving indicative of Burgos’ somewhat cantankerous nature, give the impression that the 44-year-old is nothing more than a disciplinarian, militaristic motivator, only there to give the players encouragement and occasionally get angry.
While there may be an element of that – Simeone himself is notorious for his animated touchline demeanour – the influence of Burgos on the famously disciplined Atleti sides of recent seasons has certainly gone under the radar. Assistants, in general, don’t get anywhere near the recognition of the man at the helm, but without the reliable Burgos by his side, Simeone’s methods may not have proved as fruitful.
When the two compatriots, who had established a friendship before their forays into coaching, arrived at Atlético Madrid in 2011, the club were consistently being left in the dust by rivals Real Madrid and had garnered something of a reputation as perennial underachievers. Since then, they have won the Europa League, the UEFA Super Cup, the Copa Del Rey and a La Liga title. Perhaps most impressively, and certainly most frustratingly, they have also reached two Champions League finals only to be denied on both occasions by their city rivals.
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“Achieving everything we’ve achieved is hard,” said Burgos, reflecting on the five years of success he and Simeone have experienced. “Our arrival has meant the players know where to find the presidency, the vice-presidency, the sporting director … everything got organised. We manage the players; we make sure they know what each of them are doing. We tell them we have to win every 15 minutes. Everything pulls in the same direction; everyone has made doing this possible. It’s all about Atlético.”
Burgos is clearly capable of articulating his thoughts without the need to approach everything like a bull in a china shop, but, in a way, the combative persona he presents is all part of the Atleti image that he and Simeone have brought to the club. Their mannerisms are reflected in their players’ relentlessly hard-working style of play, more so than perhaps any other team in Europe’s top leagues. If Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp once claimed to represent ‘heavy metal football’, Simeone and, in particular Burgos, can only be compared to death metal. (Incidentally, Burgos is the frontman of a rock group called The Garb.)
That’s not to say that Atlético have been any less tactically advanced than their rivals during their period of success. Burgos pioneered the innovative Google Glass during a 2-0 win against Getafe in April 2014, a technology that allows the wearer to see live statistics while still able to watch the game. “The glasses are great,” Burgos said. “They are very useful for coaches. You see all the details of the match in real time. You program what you want to see in advance and after, you can fix things. They will be the future.”
This glimpse into Burgos’ clear desire to stay one step ahead of the game suggests that many of the impressive tactical nuances Atlético have demonstrated in recent years have stemmed predominantly from the mind of El Mono.
In most analysis of Atlético’s rise to prominence since 2011, Simeone has been cited as the man almost solely responsible for transforming the Madrid club from near anonymity to worldwide recognition. Atleti have become renowned for their consistently dogged defensive displays, and their ability to rack up copious amounts of clean sheets, but Burgos has more than played his part in establishing that solidity.
He and Simeone share the same footballing ideals and possess an almost telepathic understanding when it comes to sharing ideas. “We don’t argue because we always talk,” said Burgos of his relationship with Simeone. “He’s very passionate, but he’s a real thinker. He doesn’t act like he’s above me.”
The aggressive pressing now synonymous with Atlético was birthed from the combined tactical creativity of the two Argentines, and it has enabled them to compete far beyond their means against sides – such as Barcelona and Real Madrid – with far mightier financial power and all-round reputation.
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Club captain Gabi has, in the past, pointed out the importance of the bond between Burgos and Simeone. “He [Burgos] compliments the Mister really well,” he said. “They’re both very strong characters, but they share their knowledge and strategies. We trust him. It’s important to trust an assistant.”
All the signs point towards an almost equal responsibility between the two top coaches at Atleti, with Simeone conducting from the sidelines and taking the plaudits, while Burgos influences things in a more understated manner – until his temper takes over. El Mono is certainly not one who cherishes recognition and glamour, though. A former bin man, he once claimed: “I couldn’t play at Real Madrid because of how I look. They’d make me cut my hair. Atlético is synonymous with workers. Atlético fans are brickies and taxi drivers.”
Nevertheless, with his friend and partner Simeone now regarded as one of the most in-demand coaches in world football, the time may soon come when Burgos has to leave the Vicente Calderón for pastures new. Whether it be Arsenal in the Premier League or Inter Milan in Italy, it’s likely that the duo will remain inseparable wherever the destination.
Despite the increase in rumours, Burgos is confident that Simeone remains content with life in Madrid. “I don’t see him as being in a hurry to go anywhere. He looks comfortable, strong; he transmits energy. I can’t answer for him, just tell you the way I see him. That’s what I think. What might he do in the future? I don’t know, but my feeling is that Simeone is happy.”
Whichever club manages to tempt Simeone – if he does ever leave Atleti – should attempt to proposition Burgos with an equally attractive offer. As has been proved, when looking closely at the club’s unprecedented success in recent years, there is more to a well-coached football team than just a manager.
El Mono, as a man who has successfully beaten cancer, led a rock band and most admirably, emptied peoples’ bins, should be given the recognition he deserves for contributing – alongside Simeone – to the stunning form of Atlético Madrid over the past five years and providing some memorably entertaining, if mildly scary, moments.
Look beyond the easily attained viewpoint that he is an eccentric bruiser, just looking for the next scrap, and there is a tactical mastermind and compelling character, the likes of which modern football is certainly lacking.
By Callum Rice Coates @Callumrc96