“Griezmann has already told me about Profe Ortega,” Thomas Lemar said just after signing for Atlético Madrid.
The mad scientist of strength and conditioning coaches, with his curly golden semi-mullet, is known for the paces he puts players through during preseason. You wonder sometimes if the benefits of these grueling summer sessions are seen physically or if their goal is to commit the players to something, to test their mettle.
It’s not easy to earn Diego Simeone’s trust. Just ask Matias, or Luciano, or Alessio or Yannick….[voices fades as the list goes on]. The testing never stops and that means you never stop.
I like to think that there is some kind of ritual once you become a made man under Simeone — something along the lines of reading an oath to pledge your allegiance to “Cholismo” or one of those cattle brands that leaves you indelibly marked with a giant “C,” as a line of his disciples chant “game by game” behind you in some weird ceremony.
Maybe it’s a lack of proper scouting or the excruciatingly difficult job it is to play under Simeone — but once you do make it and have bent your mind around his concepts and allowed your brain to envelope them, you are part of the clan.
An underrated aspect of Cholo’s character is his charm. He never seems flustered in press conferences. From the rare heavy beating to giddying wins, Simeone always has dignity in defeat and respect for the loser in victory. One time, however, when the Antoine Griezmann saga was rolling toward its conclusion and the fans had gotten on the French attacker’s back, Simeone did get worked up.
“Since I was a kid,” Simeone said, “I was told that you’re with the people in your family to the death.”
He reiterated his point too.
“To the death, I am with those in my family.”
Maybe it sounds better in Spanish coming from his raspy Argentinian voice — “A la muerte,” he said, as you imagined him speaking to someone who has just come into his house asking for favours on the day his daughter is to be married.
Once you’re in the family, you’re in the family until you opt out. Very few things can change that and Simeone has even been prone to giving contracts to older players when another coache wouldn’t have fought for them as hard when negotiating time came around. And while the lack of competition that comes with being a made man might kill intensity in other environments, at Atlético and under Simeone it comes with a sense of duty. When you’re in form, you know you can take on the world. Out of form, you are buoyed by the confidence from your manager and the standards within the squad.
It’s an important thing to remember, and Santiago Arias is slowly earning his stripes. He scored his first goal of the season against Huesca at the weekend and is slowly winning that elusive trust Simeone only bestows on those he deems worthy.
Juanfran was more than just a foot soldier for Simeone, but he is being pushed out of his own territory by the Colombian. And not before time. It wasn’t perhaps that Simeone didn’t think it was time to replace Juanfran, but that he couldn’t find anyone to replace him. There have been flirtations with other players, but as soon as a big game appeared on the horizon, Simeone reverted back to his right-hand man.
Arias’ start to life in Madrid was slow, as it tends to be for defenders. After nine games, he had played just 38 minutes (in two games). He was on pace to play four minutes per game across an entire season, which is not exactly impressive. Since then, however, he has started every game except one and finished all of them except another when he was a sacrificial substitute at the end of the Girona game.
At 27, he has the experience and physical development under his belt to fulfill what Simeone needs, too. He made it into Marca’s LaLiga best XI after the weekend in what was his best performance of the season too, which he capped with a fine volleyed goal. He was in that ideal XI along with Lucas Hernández as Atlético embark on a new sojourn similar to when Filipe Luis and Juanfran used to terrorise opposing midfielders and defenders.
Atlético’s biggest game of the season will come against Juventus in a few weeks and Arias has the challenge of his lifetime trying to stop Cristiano Ronaldo on his return to Madrid. If he continues on the path he’s on, he might just do that.
It might be due to old Father Time or Juanfran’s dodgy hamstrings, but Simeone is starting to put his trust in Arias and the Colombian is repaying that faith. He is becoming a made man.