IT IS DIFFICULT TO OVERSTATE THE EXTENT of Diego Simeone’s achievements as manager of Atlético Madrid. When the Argentine replaced Gregorio Manzano in the dugout of the Vicente Calderon stadium in December 2011, Los Rojiblancos appeared to be consigned to the upper-mid-table portion of La Liga for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, despite winning the Europa League and UEFA Super Cup a year before Simeone’s arrival, a pair of fourth-place finishes in 2008 and 2009 were the height of Atleti’s domestic achievements in the previous decade. Moreover, the season before Simeone’s arrival, Atlético Madrid finished behind Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal and Athletic Club in seventh place, 38 points off champions Barcelona and just 15 above the relegation zone.
The fact that Atlético smashed the seemingly impregnable La Liga duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid by lifting the league title in 2014 – just three years into Simeone’s reign – is nothing short of sensational. The man nicknamed ‘Cholo‘ had already secured the club’s 10th Copa del Rey and another Europa League and Super Cup in his first two campaigns, as well as reaching the 2014 Champions League final, but the Liga triumph was undoubtedly the pinnacle.
After all, it is impossible to fluke your way to a league championship, and for Atlético to end up victorious after a 38-game season in spite of the chronic structural and financial disadvantages faced in relation to Barcelona and neighbours Real is something largely without precedent in the history of the game.
At just 47 and into his seventh year in Madrid, it is easy to forget that Simeone has managed five other clubs. His coaching career began in his native Argentina, where four seasons were spent divided between Racing Club, Estudiantes, River Plate and San Lorenzo. The former midfielder’s success was mixed: league titles with Estudiantes and River Plate were offset by a hugely disappointing stint at San Lorenzo, who finished seventh under Simeone’s guidance despite having topped the table the previous year.
South America may have contributed nine of the 20 World Cup winners since the competition began in 1930, but the continent remains someway behind Europe on the domestic front, and it was no surprise when Simeone decided to cross the Atlantic in 2011 to advance his managerial career.
Just like in his playing days when Simeone joined Pisa in 1990 as his first stop in Europe, Italy was the destination of choice. The 40-year-old may have spent only five months at Catania in eastern Sicily, but it was a spell that, according to the man himself, made Simeone the coach he is today. “Catania was a real learning curve,” the Argentine affirmed in 2015. “I grew amidst difficulties. In terms of courage and ideas, a lot about my Atleti comes from Italy.”
Simeone was appointed by the Elefanti in January 2011 with the club hovering precariously above the relegation zone. The sacking of predecessor Marco Giampaolo was considered harsh and premature by some, but replacing him with Simeone instead of Italian contenders Franco Colomba and Claudio Gentile was entirely logical; Catania’s squad contained 12 of the Argentine’s compatriots, including Mariano Andújar, Alejandro Gómez and Pablo Álvarez, all of whom had worked with Simeone in South America.
“It’s as if I never left,” Simeone told journalists at his unveiling, referencing the eight years he spent on the peninsula as a player with Pisa, Inter and Lazio. “I have kept in contact with this country and with Serie A, and I hope to open a long cycle with Catania.”
It did not, alas, turn out that way, but the period was nonetheless a huge success for the club and Simeone alike. The prior knowledge Cholo possessed of the country and its football was invaluable: with Catania mired in relegation trouble, Simeone did not have the luxury of slowly finding his feet with little concern for results. From his first training session on 20 January onwards, every day mattered.
Atlético’s tactical setup and playing style is now well-known, Los Rojiblancos providing a template of pressing traps, defensive solidity and effective counter-attacking that others have attempted to copy. Formation-wise, however, Simeone is pragmatic rather than dogmatic, taking his players’ strengths and weaknesses into account before settling on a system.
At Atlético, this has largely manifested itself in a narrow 4-4-2, but Catania spent the second half of the 2010/11 campaign switching between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-1-2. Giampaolo’s 4-1-4-1 was ditched, largely to enable the restoration to the team of playmaker Adrian Ricchiuti, who had been discarded by the Italian coach. Ricchiuti was installed as the side’s trequartista, tasked with linking the midfield and attack and creating chances with incisive through balls for whichever of Maxi López, Gonzalo Bergessio and Francesco Lodi were selected up front.
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Although Simeone has proven himself to be flexible in terms of his teams’ configurations – early on in his Catania reign, he insisted he did not want to “fossilise myself with a rigid tactic,” asserting that managers can never have a favourite formation “for the simple fact that we have to adapt not to what we like but to what we have to work with” – the overall approach that Atlético have made famous in Spain was also clearly evident in the Argentine’s Catania outfit.
The Elefanti stayed compact and narrow in the defensive phase of play, with the wide men – two of Ezequiel Schelotto, Giuseppe Mascara, Raphael Martinho and Alejandro Gómez – expected to drop back and tuck in when out of possession; meanwhile, Ricchiuti and the central striker – more often than not López – moved back into midfield to prevent simple passes into this central zone rather than pressing the centre-backs, a notable feature of Atlético’s play over the last few seasons.
Catania were generally happy to concede the ball to rivals in order to control the space, the idea being to deny room in between the lines for opponents to pass through before springing forward quickly on the counter. The players may have been inferior, but watching the Catania of 2011 was akin to watching 2014’s Atlético: disciplined, compressed, intense and cohesive.
Notwithstanding the tweaks in style and change of shape, there was little initial improvement on the pitch. A solitary point was collected in Simeone’s first four games, feeble defeats to relegation rivals Parma and Bologna serving as evidence of the tough job ahead. Catania sat just a point and place above the dreaded 18th position going into their home game with Lecce in mid-February, but a nervy 3-2 victory saw Simeone finally get off the mark.
Nine points then followed from the next three matches at the Stadio Angelo Massimino – including a 4-0 thrashing of arch enemy Palermo – but Catania’s away form remained woeful, the Elefanti earning just four points from a possible 45 on their travels. Nevertheless, a discernible improvement had been made, and with five games remaining, Catania had a four-point and three-team cushion above the drop zone.
By now, Simeone had fostered a ferocious team spirit among a group who, while clearly talented, had been riven by divisions and infighting under Giampaolo. Cholo’s willingness to employ the underdog tactic of ceding the ball to rivals – Atlético averaged under 49 percent possession last term, an extraordinary figure for a title-challenging side – was matched with an underdog mentality.
Simeone created an “us against them” outlook at Catania, pouncing on any media criticism or bad refereeing as proof of others not wanting the Sicilians to succeed. Catania also developed an admirable never-say-die attitude, coming from behind to defeat Lecce and Genoa and secure vital draws with Bari and Juventus, and their collective performances increasingly bore a similarity to Simeone’s own style of play, full of intelligence, aggression and craft.
Survival was secured in May after a run of three back-to-back victories over Cagliari, Brescia and Roma, and Catania’s final points total of 46 was their best ever top-flight return. Despite having a year left to run on his contract, Simeone parted company with the club in June, officially by mutual consent but a development that was understood to have been initiated by the Argentine. A brief return to Racing in Simeone’s homeland followed but, by December, Cholo was installed as the new boss of Atlético.
It would be too simplistic to attribute Atlético’s success purely to what Simeone learned at Catania. However, although there are notable tactical differences between the two sides – not least the Elefanti’s use of a traditional number 10. The same ideas of courage, commitment and compactness were evident.
Simeone’s experience in Serie A gave him a managerial footing in Europe and faith that his model could work on the continent. Indeed, it was only six months after leaving Sicily that Simeone was appointed Atlético coach and, although the decision had a lot to do with his connections to the club and managerial accomplishments in South America, Cholo’s rewarding spell in charge of Catania certainly helped to persuade the Madridista board that he was the right choice.
Simeone is perhaps the most highly-regarded coach in world football right now, and when he does decide that he has taken Atlético as far as he can and wants a new challenge, there will be a host of clubs chasing his signature.
The Bundesliga or Premier League look likely destinations, but the Argentine retains affection for former employers Inter and Lazio, just as he did for Atlético after representing the club over 150 times as a player. Simeone has always spoken positively of his time in Italy, both as a fiery but smart midfielder on the pitch and a fiery but smart manager off it. Serie A, you feel, has not seen the last of Cholo yet.