Atletico Madrid will play in their second Champions League final in three seasons later this month. We all know that, of course. But while there is no will be no lack of discussion surrounding the May 28 final between Madrid's two giants, there's a separate question that we really ought to be asking right now: How impressive is Simeone's accomplishment of lifting Spain's third club to its second European final in only three seasons?
In recent history, there are a few other teams to manage the accomplishment:
- Bayern Munich reached the final three times in four seasons with their most recent appearance coming in 2012-13.
- Barcelona did it twice in three seasons in 2008-09 and 2010-11.
- Stepping back a bit further, Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United reached three finals in four seasons between 2007-08 and 2010-11.
- If we reach back into the mid 2000s, we actually have an exact copy of what is happening this season as both Liverpool and AC Milan faced off twice in European finals in three seasons with Liverpool famously winning the first via a dramatic comeback and Milan winning the rematch in 2007 (perhaps a good sign for Atletico, particularly since this year's final will be played at Milan's home stadium, the San Siro).
That said, in every one of those cases we are talking about teams that have historically done very well in Europe and, generally speaking, have significant financial resources that allow them to sign star players, retain key members of the team, and compete well in multiple competitions every season. Liverpool and Milan are no longer the financial heavyweights they once were, of course, but they are still both major players in European football. Even today Liverpool and Milan both rank ahead of Atletico in Deloitte's world football money league numbers. The other three teams to match or exceed Atletico's achievement, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Manchester United, are even more powerful and are, in fact, three of the four wealthiest clubs in the world. They have far greater financial resources than Atletico and can at least try to fix most any problem they might have by simply buying a better player. Atletico doesn't live in that world.
When you eliminate super-rich clubs and focus on other clubs of a similar size, the list of candidates becomes much smaller. In fact, there are only two potential analogs for this Atletico run:
- The first is Jose Mourinho's two-year run at Porto where he first won the UEFA Cup in 2002-03 before winning the Champions League in 2003-04.
- The other is the two-year run by Hector Cuper's Valencia that saw El Che reach the Champions League final in back-to-back seasons, only to lose both times, first 3-0 to Real Madrid in the 2000 final and then falling to Bayern Munich on penalties 5-4 after a 1-1 draw in the 2001 final.
That said, both examples, impressive though they may be, don't touch Simeone's achievement for a few reasons. First, Mourinho's Porto faced a relatively soft domestic league which allowed them to focus more of their energies on Europe. Second, though Mourinho made several savvy signings at Porto, he also inherited a relatively strong squad and was only at the club for two seasons so he was never put in a position of needing to rebuild a team or develop young talent for a lengthier period of time.
Cuper, meanwhile, did extraordinary things with Valencia in the European Cup, but finished third and fifth in La Liga during the two seasons he was at Valencia. Cuper also failed to win any major trophy during his time at Valencia.
In contrast, Simeone is now in his fifth season at Atletico, has always been competitive in La Liga, and has won every trophy Atletico has been eligible to win save the Champions League. And as David Hytner noted in The Guardian, the squad that knocked out Bayern this week in the Champions League is very different from the squad that eliminated Chelsea at the same stage two seasons ago. So El Cholo has also far surpassed the achievements of Mourinho and Cuper because of how effectively he has rebuilt this Atletico team after many star players from the 2013-14 team left the club. The list of players Simeone has successfully replaced with young talent he has helped develop is remarkable:
- He replaced long-time loanee Thibaut Courtois with Jan Oblak, a mostly unknown 21-year-old from Benfica. Oblak has, since that time, matured into one of the world's best keepers at the ripe old age of 23.
- The three key attackers in that 2013-14 team, Diego Costa, Arda Turan, and David Villa, have been replaced by Antoine Griezmann, Yannick Carrasco, and Saul Niguez. Saul has been developed within the Atletico academy while Griezmann and Carrasco were promising young talents bought from far smaller clubs at ages 23 and 21 respectively.
- He replaced long-time defensive stalwart Miranda with up-and-coming Uruguay defender Jose Gimenez.
- He has also shown a knack for finding bargains in the transfer market, as two of this season's key players, Fernando Torres and Augusto Fernandez, were cheap veteran signings made to plug specific gaps in the squad.
What's more, Simeone has done all this while managing to stay competitive in La Liga. After winning the league in 2013-14, they finished third last season and are still chasing another title this season, although that will rely on them receiving some help from Espanyol or Granada.
Simply put, there is no parallel for the three-year run that Simeone has been on. No manager in the world has put together two appearances in the Champions League final in such a short span while working at a club the size of Atletico and remaining competitive in the domestic league. It simply isn't done. And we haven't even talked about the first season and a half of his reign, which saw him lead Atletico to Copa Del Rey and Europa League crowns. So regardless of what happens at the San Siro on May 28th, Simeone has already achieved something that no one else has approached in world football. He isn't just one of the top three managers in the world today; he's one of the most impressive managers in recent footballing history.