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Cholo fatigue might be real for Atlético Madrid

The rebuilt Colchoneros seem to be stuck in the same vicious cycle — with no easy way out.

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Club Atletico de Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Diego Simeone has won plenty during his eight-plus years as Atlético Madrid’s coach. But he’s also lost a lot — two Champions League finals on the pitch, and many of his best and brightest players off it.

Despite the departures and gut-wrenching close calls, Simeone is the greatest manager to ever stalk Atlético’s sideline. He has done something almost unthinkable in football’s modern age, taking one club through multiple eras within an era. He has (incredibly) seen off six Real Madrid managers, with Zinedine Zidane already in his second stint at the club. Barcelona have had five bosses since El Cholo was appointed in Dec. 2011.

The Argentine has seen Atlético move from the old, battered Vicente Calderón to the ultra-modern Wanda Metropolitano. In the summer before he arrived, the club spent €30 million total. They spent four times that on one player this summer. Before he arrived, making it in to the Champions League was a novelty — now it’s a necessity.

Club Atletico de Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Though he was one of the new arrivals from a very expensive summer, Kieran Trippier already understands how the coach has overseen such a shift in Atlético’s fortunes.

“It’s about respect,” he said last week. “It starts from Cholo and it comes all the way down. Everyone respects the system.”

But generating respect hasn’t been Simeone’s greatest weapon. That would be the ability to drain more from the whole than the sum of its parts.

Antoine Griezmann returned to the Wanda Metropolitano on Sunday night, and for the first time in opposing colours. Griezmann — the author of the stadium’s first goal after it was reopened in 2017, and 28 more after that — said he left Atlético not to win trophies, although there was an assumption that he would have a better chance with a move to the Camp Nou. He said he left to learn a new style of football. For years, he toiled under Simeone. He reaped the rewards as the team’s talisman, but it was mostly toil.

Just two summers ago he decided (literally) he didn’t want to join Barcelona. He revealed his choice in an infamous documentary created with help from Gerard Piqué’s production company. Seventeen months later, his decision since reversed, he was back at the Wanda — and every time he touched the ball the fans had the chance to let them know how they felt about his u-turn. Not that he needed the reminder.

Atletico Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

A big fuss took place as “Griezmann” was read out over the Tannoy. But when he touched that ball for the first time and the fans felt it time to turn on the taps and let the hate flow out, they realised it wasn’t really there.

Atlético supporters had known for a while Griezmann wasn’t long for the club and were happy once he did eventually leave — even if they did make an effort to boo him whenever he touched the ball on Sunday night. All hate had been used up already, having steadily trickled out in previous years. It had come out in passive-aggressive encounters during his lengthy flirtation with Manchester United, and when the rumours first circled about another Barcelona approach. It emptied out in bars before and after games around the Wanda, days and months after “The Decision.”

The seeming apathy aimed at Griezmann also speaks to a wider issue with Atlético — let’s call it “Cholo fatigue.”

The Wanda rocked on Sunday night — within reason. There was the normal fear that accompanies a game against Barcelona, the apprehension usually felt when Lionel Messi loiters around the penalty area. But that usually turns into excitement mixed with adrenaline.

On Sunday, there was a distinct lack of edge with Atlético even before Messi’s 86th minute winner, an edge which extended beyond the club’s fans. Over the past several months, I have written in this space about Simeone’s attempts to revolutionize, radicalize or even tweak his Cholismo philosophy in light of the Turin debacle in March. Even with a regenerated squad, the whole vibe around the team doesn’t seem as intense anymore. Where once there was nastiness, now there is nothing.

One would not be off the mark to compare this apathy to an extremely recent situation from north London, where Mauricio Pochettino roamed Tottenham Hotspur’s dugout for over five years before Jose Mourinho replaced him. Various reports indicated that same kind of weariness set in for Pochettino’s men — naturally associated with the horrible empty feeling you get when you know a cycle has ended without official clarification.

The feeling after that falling out was relief more than anything. “I gave the best of myself,” Pochettino wrote in a letter to his former players.

Diego Simeone is Atlético Madrid, and he has shaped the current version of this club more than anyone. He demands the best, and as a top coach, he deserves the best. His message is simple and clear — work harder than everyone else and reap the reward.

But what happens when the message stops being heard, when the work stops? Or worse — what if Simeone knows he needs to change, but can’t?