Diego Simeone has had a problem for the last several years. The problem is not rooted in a lack of consistency or any apparent crisis, but with his Atlético Madrid side’s evolution. There was never full-blown panic, but a low-grade anxiety bubbled under the surface. As Atlético continued to stumble, it became clear his task was not to echo Cholismo for eternity but to renew it.
After seven league games, a summer departure that forced a change and João Félix’s coming-of-age, it looks like he has finally found a synthesis between the past’s muscular, direct football and a more-progressive style in line with Atlético’s stature as one of Europe’s bigger sides. It has only been seven games but Atlético have had 54 percent possession. That mark has never been over 49.4 percent in the last seven seasons.
For a long time, Simeone seemed unsure how to move forward. And in ways, not deciding to act was identical to deciding not to act.
Cholismo is dead.
How did we get here?
Atlético swept to the LaLiga title in 2013-14 with a defensive, counter-attacking 4-4-2. Simeone didn’t invent the low block, but he certainly made it a common term among football fans. After two Champions League finals and that LaLiga success, Atlético had established themselves as one of Europe’s best teams.
He maintains his goal is that of consistency, and making the Champions League. But there have been cries for more. Atlético needed to be more than just consistent. They had to be competitive again. Simeone knew he had to change, and where a resolution is necessary, it must also be possible. It took Simeone longer than even he might have liked to figure this out, but one significant loss in the summer might have led to the change this year.
Losing Thomas Partey
It came as such a surprise that even the most well-connected Arsenal reporters were left in the dark. For weeks, Arsenal had been unable to justify paying €50 million for Thomas Partey amid such economic uncertainty. It can’t even be put down to a negotiation tactic, because Atlético were adamant they would not enter talks over the Ghanaian midfielder; release clause or nothing, they said, and meant it.
Partey was central to Simeone’s attempts to evolve into a more direct, possession-based side. The lanky 27-year-old was the centre of everything Cholo wanted to become. He had established himself as a star, but that did not translate into a collective improvement. For all of Partey’s diagonal, line-breaking passes, there remained a cynicism about Atlético’s style, a lack of intent and freedom.
Losing Partey to Arsenal on deadline day caused a reshuffle and a rethink. With the Ghana international gone and combative defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira coming in, Simeone needed to find inspiration elsewhere.
Atlético drew 0-0 with Villarreal early in the season in what was possibly the nadir of Cholismo; a staid performance lacking in ambition. Simeone decided something needed to be done.
And this is where João Félix comes in.
It’s hard not to compare Félix with Antoine Griezmann. Aside from the fact that Félix replaced Griezmann the same summer the Frenchman left, there is a technical quality they both possess, an elegance they share.
The two players are different, though. Griezmann is shorter and sturdier, never afraid to dedicate significant energy to tracking back and helping his team. Griezmann wants to have the ball, but if he doesn’t have it, he’ll do what he can to help the team.
But Félix’s oxygen is the ball. It’s only when he has it at his feet that he comes alive. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — it can and has led to an excellent start to the season for Atlético. The way he understands the game is when he has the ball, and it’s a sight to behold; as graceful as he is efficient.
Simeone has gone against his natural tendency, suppressed his own need for control, and handed Felix the keys. The result has seen the 21-year-old Portuguese stake a claim as LaLiga’s best player and Europe’s in-form player.
Evolution can seem random and iterative, but natural selection is not random. Félix, the most expensive player in club history, is Griezmann’s natural successor in the team. But he will exceed what the Frenchman did in red and white if he stays long enough to fulfil that potential.
The inverse Menotti — idealism meets pragmatism
In Argentina, the holding midfielder, the number 5, is one of the most important positions on the field. Some of the albiceleste’s most important players have been deployed there; Esteban Cambiasso, Javier Mascherano, Fernando Redondo. Simeone himself was a number 5 and knows how important the role is.
Cholo’s plan was to build around Partey. But in all of those Argentina sides, the number 5 was a piece of a larger puzzle, not an end in itself.
Under César Luis Menotti at the 1978 World Cup, Argentina played a peculiar version of “La Nuestra,” which helped them win the competition. Menotti, an idealist, once said:
“In football, there are risks because the only way you can avoid taking risks is by not playing.”
But Menotti contained a duality, as Jonathan Wilson explains in “Inverting the Pyramid.”
“Argentina football at that tournament was at times thrilling, but it had a muscularity and directness to it that set it apart from la nuestra.” The idealist had baked some pragmatism into his style while maintaining all the discourse and façade of a dreamer.
Menotti, who believed that “the important thing is to feel the ball, to pass it, to knead it, to dribble with it,” is the antithesis of Diego Simeone.
Simeone has had to do the opposite. Always wary of taking risks, Simeone has had to alter his own principles, and change how he viewed football and his Atlético side.
Somewhere along the road in recent years, he came face-to-face with his style’s limitations. That style’s success brought it upon him, but the questions remained. Could Simeone adapt to new expectations?
This season, it looks like something is happening that could see Atlético compete again with the big boys. They are a creative force now and, it might be safe to say, a possession-based team.
With 706.9 touches per 90 according to FBRef, Atlético are behind just Real Madrid and Barcelona so far this season. That figure is up from 580.1 touches per 90 last season. Atlético are yet to play an opponent that might cause them to rethink their style — they have Barcelona after the international break — but it looks like Simeone has made up his mind. The players too seem happy with the change, Félix particularly. If he continues on the course he has set off on this season, he will be a Ballon d’Or winner before long.
Cholismo as we knew it is dead. Simeone took his time rebuilding his squad and figuring out how to re-establish Atlético as a competitive force, but he has. And Cholismo 2.0 might be even better, with all the trappings of the original — and with Félix orchestrating the attack.