When Diego Simeone returned to Atlético Madrid as a manager in 2011, they were four points away from the relegation zone and were hardly a threat to those higher than them. Since then, the Argentine manager has revolutionized the club, changed the way things are done in the Spanish capital, lead the club to new success including one league title, one Copa del Rey and two Champions League finals and has instilled a distinct style and attitude that they are well-renowned for around the whole world.
“El Cholo”, as he is often known and “Cholismo”, used to identify his traits, are well-known and well-chased, and at Atlético Madrid, it is highly regarded. The term itself was initially an insult used to identify the lower class, but eventually, it is used to imply toughness, roughness and finding another, perhaps unorthodox way, of doing things.
Over the last eight years, Simeone has changed personnel, bringing in those that would adhere to his philosophy devotedly, changing the way his players are traditionally known for playing and asking his comrades to put their team, their cause and their commitment above anything else. So far, it has worked, making Simeone one of the most revered managers in the game. Last season, however, there were issues, and it was clear that the old ways weren’t working anymore. Change was needed.
They fazed out of the LaLiga race towards the end. The ultimate dream of the Champions League, where they hoped to play in the final of their new home, the Wanda Metropolitano, drained out in the Round of 16 after they blew a 2-0 first-leg lead against Juventus. That was the incentive which encouraged many to stay, but after that, it wasn’t just the players that would leave.
The attendance figures would continuously reduce each week as there was little to fight for. The supporters were disgruntled with the way things were run and they knew there was a massive summer ahead of them. This team needed freshness, a new motivation, a new will to fight and a team they could re-identify themselves with. Eventually, along with the fans’ dwindling interest, the likes of Lucas Hernandez, Rodri, Antoine Griezmann, Juanfran, Filipe Luís and Diego Godín, the player that most signified the Cholismo spirit, were gone.
The summer transfer window so far has been immense for Simeone and the Colchoneros. To replace the big-name outgoings, there have been big-name incomings as Simeone has left no stone unturned in the hope of bringing Atlético’s fight back. The likes of Porto’s Felipe and Héctor Herrera, defenders Kieran Trippier and Mario Hermoso as well as the cross-town signing of Marcos Llorente and of course, one of the most touted players in the world, João Félix have been some of the stand-out transfers this year. Along with them, the loan extension of Álvaro Morata and the signing of young Renan Lodi are seen as vital in order to bolster the team.
In many ways, this is the most important season of Diego Simeone’s career. Despite earning a profit in their transfer window so far, the high level of spending and expectation due to his past success makes this a season of great belief. Failing to make the Champions League final at the Wanda Metropolitano earlier this year hurt, and both manager and board have been keen on repeating such failure in the near future.
For the manager, it is a year of massive work. When he first arrived at the club, he took over a group of players that had been a part of the struggle, integrated them with a group that were Colchoneros since birth and created a squad that could blend well. The likes of Godín, Juanfran, Gabi, and Koke had seen it all with Atlético, and when they took in the Simeone spirit, it worked a treat. How it’ll work with the current set-up is yet to be seen, but there are a few points to keep a keen eye on.
There will be plenty of eyes on young João Félix. The 19-year-old is already one of the most expensive players in the world and there will be plenty of pressure on him to succeed right from the off. According to Sid Lowe of The Guardian, the story of how Atlético wanted to replace the outgoing Griezmann goes with the manager saying that they needed someone who “plays behind the striker, scores 20 goals a year and doesn’t cost much”.
In short, they wanted a like-for-like replacement, but they ended up getting the cream of the crop, making João Félix the fourth-most expensive player ever.
In recent years, attacking signings haven’t done well at Atlético Madrid. Despite the alumni consisting of the likes of Fernando Torres, Diego Forlán, Sergio Agüero, and Radamel Falcao, the past few years have seen players like Nicolás Gaitán, Yannick Carrasco and Jackson Martínez come in and fail to do much of note. Even the current squad includes Thomas Lemar come in at a high fee and after a season, not produce many fireworks while the returning Diego Costa has spent a fair amount of time off the pitch, owing to injuries and suspensions.
Of course, given his age, expectations, potential, and fee, João Félix is bound to be given more time than the aforementioned lot of players, but one has to wonder: can he create the Griezmann-esque impact that many require him? A defensively-astute manager, Simeone gives more attention to the first-third than the final-third, and whether he can integrate João Félix’s incredible talents into this new-look Atlético side will be interesting to watch over the next few months.
Staying in attack, another area of interest will be the attacking line. For the last few years, Atlético Madrid mainly relied on the exploits of Antoine Griezmann for their goals. The Frenchman, despite being embroiled in vast transfer speculation for the best part of the last three summers, continuously put in good performances and scored a decent number of goals over the years. At the end of his five-year tenure, he scored 133 times in 257 games across all competitions, making him the club’s fourth-highest goalscorer. Of course, João Félix is expected to take over, but he’ll need great assistance from his forwards, who have been stuttering.
Despite spending big over the summer and the possibility of bringing in another player from cross-town rivals, Real Madrid in the form of James Rodríguez, the only transaction in the forwards’ department has been extending Morata’s loan with a view to a permanent transfer. This is quite worrying for the team. Along with Morata, the current roster includes the likes of Diego Costa, Ivan Šaponjić and Nikola Kalinić and that isn’t much to get excited about. Another addition seems unlikely, so this is what Atlético have to go with throughout the season.
Kalinić has been in poor form over the last two seasons, having scored just 10 times in over 60 games in that period for both his current club and AC Milan. Šaponjić, a 21-year-old, only just signed for the club and there is hope he can grow into his role in the future. The two main forwards will indeed be Morata and Costa. The former, too, hardly has a great record. In his time at Chelsea, Morata showed several instances of lapses of concentration and succumbing to pressure. He was brought in to replace the then-outgoing Costa at the Blues but failed to live up to expectations for two years, before the London club struck a deal to cut their losses.
Costa, too, hasn’t been the same since his return. The 30-year-old has stuttered over the last 18 months and is sure to miss the opening weeks of the new domestic season after receiving an eight-match ban for abusing a referee in the clash against Barcelona at the Camp Nou at the end of last season. For Atlético, the recovery of form for at least these two primary forwards will be crucial. They can no longer rely on an Antoine Griezmann while expecting the same returns from João Félix would be silly.
Whether they can actually do a good job leading the line is yet to see, but it is clear that these two experienced campaigners need to step up, not just for the club, but for their careers as well.
THE MIDDLE AND THE BACK-LINE
Following the departure of former captain and vice-captain, Godín and Juanfran, it will be Koke who will be taking up the highest leadership role at the team. Born in Madrid and having been at the club since the age of eight – now completing 19 years – Koke bleeds Atlético Madrid. On the face of things, he is the perfect option to lead this new team. Koke was integral when the club was enjoying success in Simeone’s early years and if there is one person who can learn and allow others to learn the way of life at Atlético to this new crop of talent, it is him. At his best, he was one of the finest in Spain, but recent years haven’t seen his best. He too needs to pick up.
In 2013/14, the season Atlético Madrid won the league and reached the Champions League final in Lisbon as well as 2015/16, the second time they reached the ultimate match of the competition, this time in Milan, Koke was crucial. He was involved in 20 goals each in both campaigns – his best figures to date – but since then, his action in front of goal has declined. The last three seasons combined have seen 29 goal involvements, and there are several reasons for this.
The aforementioned rise of Griezmann has been one of the primary factors, and that along with him taking up a deeper role rather than time on the flanks has also contributed to it. Perhaps now that the likes of Herrera and Llorente have arrived to take up more of the defensive work, the old guard of him and Saúl Ñíguez can step up and they will be needed. Under Simeone, Koke has grown from boy to man to icon. Now, in their time of change, they need a legend to take charge.
Going further down the pitch, it is, rather unsurprisingly, the defensive line that has seen the most changes. Having lost four vital figures in Godín, Juanfran, Hernandez and Luís, there have been plenty brought in to accommodate and elevate the Colchoneros’ backline. José Giménez has taken up the mantle as the leader, and rather than going for someone experienced, they have opted for Hermoso, one of the best young defenders in LaLiga to pair up with him while they will receive competition from Felipe.
On the flanks, it will likely be Lodi and Trippier, as they complete the nearly new-look back-four. Trippier, in particular, is one to keep an eye on. The English right-back has been suspect defensively over the last season, which promoted his former club, Tottenham Hotspur, to offload him from the wage bill. That is an area Simeone will be looking to improve, and right from the off, it is something they have worked on.
According to Sid Lowe for The Guardian, Trippier’s signing was announced at 6pm on 17 July, and at 6:10, he was already departing out for the team’s training base in the mountains towards Segovia, Spain to work with Óscar Ortega, the team’s fitness coach, also known as El Profe. He’s also going to be working with Germán Burgos, and together, the pair have coordinated with Simeone to create some of the modern generation’s finest defensive set-ups.
CHANGES: THE WAY OF THINGS AND THE EVOLUTION OF EL CHOLO
In all, it’s time for a new Simeone and the summer has made it clear that this is a new Atlético Madrid. When they won the league and reached the Champions League final in 2014, Simeone had a side of long-term work-horses who put club over anything else. It was a side that cost little – much less than their nearest competitors – oftentimes the entire side even cost less than one or two players in the opposition. Now, times have changed. This summer has been his most expensive, having already spent €313 million on new talent – almost double his previous biggest summer spend, which came in 2015 when they spent €162 million.
Another key trend in this window is that Simeone is looking to the future. Having signed a deal until 2022 in February and having shown little signs of leaving despite years of success and interest from elsewhere, he has stayed and just like his previous group of stars, he wants a core group. His purchases this year have been young players that can last the future: João Félix is 19; Lodi is 21; Šaponjić is 21; Llorente is 24; Hermoso is 24. Other, relatively more experienced players are in their prime years: Morata is 26; Trippier is 28; Herrera is 29.
As for Simeone himself, we’re likely to witness a different version of El Cholo and his management team in the upcoming campaign. Recent years have seen Atlético Madrid struggle with constant injury issues, struggle to break down competitive teams and challenge the upper echelons of European football like they used to at their best. Their failure to qualify for the knockout rounds of the Champions League in the 2017/18 season and the collapse against Juventus at the Allianz Arena in March only proved their ineptness, and that is a worrying sign.
There have been talks that his methods are perhaps outdated and merely the fact that he can create a well-knit, well-committed group is no longer enough for success. Maybe there are players that would be more comfortable playing in sleek systems and not the defensive hardness that Simeone yearns for. Take Rodri for example, who left his boyhood club after one season to play under the ever-evolving Manchester City, despite knowing that a new era at his former club was inevitable soon enough. Could his departure be the indication that perhaps Simeone has been far too stubborn in his ways over the last two years?
Perhaps that is the reason they have gone for an all-out, youthful approach in this window, where players can be fitter for longer periods of the season whilst their hunger to succeed remains ever-present, no matter the system they are in.
Even Óscar Ortega, the revered fitness coach, has reportedly been too harsh with his methods. There have always been reports of him being involved in bust-ups with his players – even the ferocious Diego Costa, a man full of energy and intensity at all times, once fell ill after a session with him.
As we’ve seen with Arsène Wenger in his final two years in professional management and José Mourinho in his last two jobs, their failure to implement change successfully cost them dearly. Simeone, a perennial champion, needs to avoid that. He loves to win, loves to compete and loves doing what he does, but if he can’t evolve in the way that adheres to this new-look Atlético Madrid, then there will be trouble ahead.
Cholismo, as we know it with Atlético Madrid will never be the same. This is version 2.0, with an improved commander-in-chief leading a new star cast with a different way of doing things. There hasn’t been this much excitement on the red-and-white side of Madrid for a few years, but there will be plenty of eyes on them in the upcoming season not just in Spain, but across Europe as well. If it works out well, there’s a new period of silverware on the way, but if not, it could all spiral out of control with the commander in trouble.