El Cholo’s Last Stand

Written by on February 17, 2020

MADRID — Diego Simeone beloved the best way the daylight hit the stands on the Vicente Calderón. First as an Atlético Madrid participant, after which as its supervisor, he relished house video games within the stadium in late afternoon, when he may search for from the sector and see the purple and white seats glinting within the waning glow.

That was when he felt the stadium’s vitality on the touchline, when the solar shone and the banners fluttered and the songs drifted down from on excessive. Simeone spent a substantial portion of his skilled life in that stadium, however he was by no means inoculated in opposition to its energy. “The Calderón has a capability to have an effect on you,” he mentioned.

Simeone knew, when he agreed to take cost of Atlético a number of days after Christmas in 2011, that he must harness that energy. He understood, he felt, what the membership’s followers wished, what kind of workforce can be according to Atlético’s historical past, its id, what type of play would win the backing of the Calderón.

His workforce, he instructed The Coaches’ Voice a number of years later, must be constructed on a robust protection, a lethal counterattack and an unyielding work ethic. Simeone, the participant generally known as El Cholo, was creating his personal philosophy: Cholísmo. “The one factor that’s not negotiable is effort,” he instructed his gamers of their first assembly. Most of all, he mentioned, Atlético needed to be a thorn within the facet of the superpowers.

He and his workforce have delivered on that promise. By nearly any metric, Simeone’s tenure as Atlético’s supervisor has been an unqualified, spectacular success. The trophies are, in fact, the obvious proof. Beneath Simeone, Atlético has lifted the Europa League and the European Tremendous Cup twice, in 2012 and 2018. He gained the Copa del Rey, in opposition to Actual Madrid, in 2013, and led the membership to the Champions League closing in 2014 and 2016.

Most vital, in fact, he led Atlético to the Spanish title in 2014 — sealed on enemy territory in Barcelona, too. It was the membership’s first championship for nearly twenty years, and the primary time in 10 years {that a} workforce apart from Barcelona or Actual Madrid had gained the Spanish crown.

It’s a outstanding haul for a workforce that was, till not too long ago, identified for its skill to fall on the final, for its perpetual disappointment. Atlético has lengthy been identified, by followers and foes alike, as El Pupas: the Jinxed. The nickname doesn’t come up a lot, as of late.

There are different measures, past trophies, of what Simeone has achieved. His longevity, for one: He’s, by far, the longest-serving supervisor at any main membership in Europe, and at a membership that till he arrived had been allergic to stability. Earlier than Simeone, Atlético had employed 12 coaches in a decade.

Much more telling, maybe, is the ocean change in Atlético’s fortunes off the sector. His success has successfully worn out the membership’s hovering money owed, and attracted the sort of deep-pocketed international sponsors — China’s Wanda group, Azerbaijan’s tourism board, an Israeli billionaire — that helped pay for a brand new stadium, for greater salaries, for brand spanking new gamers. Final summer time, Atlético spent $142 million on a single participant — João Felix — and an extra $100 million on strengthening the squad.

Atlético, in different phrases, is now not the poor relation: It has paid extra for a participant than Actual Madrid, and it reportedly pays its coach greater than any workforce on the earth.

On Tuesday, when Atlético hosts Liverpool within the final 16 of the Champions League, it is not going to be at Simeone’s beloved Calderón. The membership left its longtime house in 2017 for the Wanda Metropolitano, a state-of-the-art however barely soulless bowl on Madrid’s northern fringes, one grand sufficient to be the stage on which Liverpool gained final season’s Champions League closing.

Atlético is near opening an equally lavish coaching base, too, one which — in keeping with Simeone — “lives as much as what the membership deserves.” Eventually, in his eyes, the “progress of the membership is parallel to that of the workforce.” Simeone nonetheless regards Atlético as “socially, morally and emotionally the folks’s workforce,” however even he acknowledges its picture, and its standing, have modified.

In 2012, as his workforce ready to face Chelsea within the European Tremendous Cup, Simeone declared that the English membership’s huge monetary superiority was irrelevant. “Coronary heart can cancel out price range,” he declared then.

For years, that was how Atlético competed, the way it ensured its cherished place as European soccer’s nice irritant. Now it doesn’t must. That’s the extent of what Simeone has achieved: He has helped the everlasting outsider crash by means of the doorways of the palace. Atlético is now a part of Europe’s elite. The query most are asking, now, is the place that leaves the coach who took it there.

Simeone wished extra vitality. Not, in that exact second, from his workforce — toiling at house to Bayer Leverkusen in a Champions League group sport in October — however from the followers. Halfway by means of the second half, with the sport goalless, he paused in his attribute prowling across the technical space to show to the gang along with his fist raised, demanding extra noise, extra energy.

In response, a portion of the followers whistled him. Simeone is aware of that soccer is fickle: Earlier than his first sport as Atlético coach, he instructed his gamers that the gang that now stood in raptures earlier than him had “at one level insulted” him as a participant. “Soccer is like that,” he mentioned.

Even so, that second was putting. Simeone all the time knew, instinctively, what Atlético wished. The membership’s trendy id was entwined along with his. But for the primary time in nearly a decade, discord was within the air.

As Simeone prepares for the go to of Liverpool, there’s a fragile peace. This has been a testing season. Atlético sits fourth in La Liga, minimize adrift from Actual and Barcelona within the title race, and behind even Getafe, an unheralded workforce from one in all Madrid’s satellite tv for pc cities. It was eradicated from the Copa del Rey by a second-division facet.

Its defensive parsimony stays: Solely Actual Madrid has conceded fewer targets this season. Simeone’s coaching periods are nonetheless a reference level for groups throughout Europe. Final summer time, in search of inspiration for the right way to enhance its personal protection, Bournemouth despatched a delegation simply to look at how he labored.

The issue is his workforce’s toothlessness. Atlético has scored solely 25 targets in 24 video games. Given the amount of cash spent final summer time, significantly on João Felix, to attempt to make the workforce extra expansive, it’s a paltry return.

Simeone is aware of this. He tried to signal Edinson Cavani, the Uruguay striker, in January to provide the workforce extra innovative. He has met in current weeks with Miguel Ángel Gil, Atlético’s chief govt, and the sporting director Andrea Berta to debate the right way to enhance the workforce’s attacking efficiency with out compromising its resilience.

What Atlético — as a membership, as a fan base — calls for of its workforce has modified, mutated indirectly alongside the street from the Calderón to the Metropolitano. As one affiliate of Simeone’s famous, there’s an unavoidable incongruity in taking part in underdog soccer in an aristocrat’s house.

“In Cholísmo, the result’s God,” the previous Argentina ahead Jorge Valdano — now a columnist for El País, and one in all Spain’s most erudite soccer observers — wrote final 12 months. That was all the time Simeone’s logic, and his protection: So long as his philosophy produced outcomes, there may very well be no complaints.

This season, it isn’t working. Simeone has not been capable of craft a extra attacking workforce, and all of Atlético’s previous virtues haven’t been sufficient. Within the absence of God, Simeone’s congregation has began to doubt its religion.

Lately, Simeone has lent his identify to 2 books, in collaboration with the journalist Santi Garcia Bustamante. Each sit extra comfortably on the life-style cabinets than within the sports activities part.

Within the second, longer version — entitled merely “Creer,” or “Imagine” — Simeone writes: “When the opposition workforce sense that there’s worry, they take benefit with out mercy.” For a lot of the final decade, that would have functioned as a abstract of what made Atlético nice.

Now, it encapsulates in addition to something the issue it’s going through. Opponents now not worry Atlético; as a substitute, they detect an uncertainty, an nervousness, in Simeone’s workforce, one which bounces and echoes between the sector and the stands.

Ordinarily, the go to of Liverpool — the reigning European and world champion, a facet unbeaten within the Premier League and hailed final week by Lionel Scaloni, the Argentina coach, as the one “invincible” workforce on the earth — can be a calvary for a workforce struggling for kind.

For Atlético, curiously, it’s nearly a blessing. There’s scarcely an opponent Simeone will relish going through extra. For 180 minutes, his workforce might be itself once more: gritty and resolute and uncompromising. It could actually reclaim its previous id, slip into a job it is aware of completely. Atlético is at its finest when it’s annoying the superpowers. At present, there isn’t any greater superpower to bother than Liverpool.

Far much less sure is what comes after. Simeone retains his aura and the religion of most of his gamers, although these contained in the membership admit that maybe the squad’s dynamics are struggling as a result of so a lot of his most trusted lieutenants — the likes of Diego Godín and Gabi — have departed. His aura has not dissipated. As one participant famous, Atlético continues to be the kind of membership the place no person is ever late for a workforce assembly. A 12 months in the past, the supervisor prolonged his contract till 2022.

However there’s a feeling that change is coming. Germán Burgos, Simeone’s longstanding assistant, is eager to begin his personal managerial profession; it was telling that he didn’t signal a brand new contract when Simeone did.

The most important query is what occurs to Simeone. He would possibly be capable to undergo his again catalog, to play the best hits, to select a well past Liverpool. The larger problem, although, is to discover a approach to replace Cholísmo to mirror Atlético’s new circumstances, to develop a method that fits a workforce that’s now not all the time content material to be the underdog and a membership that calls for leisure with its efficacy.

Atlético’s id is now fused with Simeone’s. It’s onerous to think about one with out the opposite. However Simeone, for one, has by no means believed in his personal immutability. “I all the time depart earlier than they kick me out,” he as soon as mentioned. “And I all the time consider they’ll kick me out tomorrow.” After nearly 9 years, that second of reckoning could also be coming. Liverpool may be his final hurrah. It may also be his final stand.

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