Diego Simeone emerged as one of Europe’s finest managers when football’s overarching ideology was in a vulnerable state.
Pep Guardiola had just left Barcelona after a period of unprecedented success, and Spain were starting to decline after almost a decade of dominance using the same principles. The playwright Arthur Miller once said “an era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted,” and tiki-taka was starting to show signs of stagnation — if not utter fragility. Football was primed for disruption.
Simeone burst into the scene as Atlético Madrid’s manager with one of the most impressive and awe-inspiring titles wins of the century. If it wasn’t for Leicester City doing the impossible in the Premier league just a couple of seasons later, Atlético would still hold the title as everybody’s favourite underdog.
Simeone’s low block 4-4-2 brought Atlético success, and it forced clubs to find ways to beat it. As such, where possession was once king, speed of transition now reigns. Technique was considered more important that athleticism, but now it’s a blend of the two. Minimising mistakes has been replaced by organised chaos, and Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool have been outshooting and outworking opponents all over the field the last two years.
Atlético are preparing (or maybe despairing) Liverpool’s visit to the Wanda Metropolitano in the Champions League on Tuesday night. They’ve built their season around this tie, but not because of the size of the task or the scope of Liverpool’s greatness. It’s because it’s all they’ve got left.
There are murmurs that Atlético love this kind of game and will relish being underdogs. It is as appealing as it is romantic to think this is all part of the plan but it’s not. Atlético are fraught at the seams — and while Simeone has tried to adapt and bring a fresh approach to his team this season, they can’t shake the fear of making mistakes and the defence-first approach he has preached for almost a decade on the bench.
The teams that have emerged and taken control of Europe in the last couple seasons are a late-stage version of Cholismo. They have taken all the most formidable aspects and mixed them with razor-sharp attacks.
In order to understand what happened in the 2010s and how Simeone exploited the weaknesses of those trends, all we have to do is take a look at what the leading players have done in the field with both Klopp and Pep being the very best managers over the last 10 years.
“Transitions” have existed in football for decades, but their importance has only been highlighted in recent years. When Simeone went through his richest yield years, Atlético sliced up teams in transition. There were few three-word phrases as frightening as “Atlético Madrid counter,” and they were committed to it totally. The top teams were not built to resist them.
Barcelona, under Tata Martino in 2013/14, were a prime example. Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets were the four midfielders with the most minutes in the squad. None of them became famous for their blistering speed. Meanwhile, Neymar, Messi, Alexis and Pedro were the four attackers with the most minutes — none of whom became superstars for their defensive willingness.
Guardiola, working at Bayern Munich by that time, was eventually forced to deploy full-backs in midfield to prevent quick counters in the Bundesliga. He was told upon arrival in Germany that teams could counter in seconds, but even he was not ready for the importance of transitioning in the league. Once he started to adapt and implement these speedy transitions into his style, the rest of Europe started to catch on.
Klopp was already in Germany and welcomed the challenge Guardiola presented, and he seemed to only get better once the Catalan came into the league.
“It’s like an orchestra,” Klopp said about Pep Guardiola’s style. “But it’s a silent song. I prefer heavy metal.”
Klopp’s Liverpool side took Atlético’s earliest work and added a constant attacking threat. They are what Simeone’s side once was — strong, quick and physical, relentless in their pursuit of the second ball. Atlético dined out on that valuable second ball at the start of Simeone’s era. The key to Klopp’s success has been being able to beat teams who sit deep against them and also causing intense discomfort for the very best teams who take it to them. Simeone’s style only worked in specific contexts, but Klopp’s is polymorphic.
Michael Cox outlines here how football has been transitioning into the future. LaLiga, has seen a decline in shots starting in 2013/14, and it slumped to its lowest point in 2016/17. Football, like chess, is not a game you can solve. It’s a game where you take advantage of mistakes and minimise your own. This is something Simeone knows very well, and many of the games the mattress makers played in — and still do — were very cagey and low in chances.
But Klopp and Liverpool aren’t concerned with keeping the ball. They want to hurt you — and if that means making mistakes, then that’s the way it has to be.
One of the keys to Simeone’s philosophy was set-pieces. “Diego Godin header from a corner” wasn’t just a string of words — it was a death sentence. Liverpool coaches Pep Lijnders and Peter Krawietz — as explained by James Pearce in this article — were called in by Klopp early during his time at Liverpool and told to do a complete overhaul of set-pieces.
“For example, look at Trent (Alexander-Arnold)’s delivery, Ljinders said. “That’s one thing and the timing and heading of Virgil (Van Dijk) is another. We need to use these strengths. They give colour to the ideas we have.”
Liverpool have also employed a throw-in coach in recent years. Set-piece exploitation — once considered a cheap way to gain an advantage — is now vital to Liverpool. And it’s another example of some of Simeone’s earliest work has been taken and turned into something more robust.
José Mourinho, better than most, understood the essence of the zeitgeist and moved in the opposite direction. He was successful at four different clubs as the antagonist before the latest innovations left him behind. The Portuguese rose to prominence on the back of his opposition analysis reports while under Bobby Robson at Barcelona. He was able to find a weakness and exploit it in the very best teams. If you had a chink in your armour, Mourinho would spot it and expose it to the world on the biggest stage.
It was his success, however, that led him to the conviction that this way worked. And as the world evolved around him, he kept thinking back to a time when he was at the vanguard. Tactical innovations might be cyclical, but there is no rule as to how fast that cycle goes.
Cholo is entrenched in his view in part because of how successful his teams were at the start of his third Atlético spell. The thought goes that they can repeat that success — if only they could get back to their roots, but do it better than the last time.
Yet football has moved on. Strategy is a moving target you’re trying to hit — and on Tuesday, that target will be a dynamic red changeling, back in the Spanish capital.