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Diego Simeone changed Luis Suárez — and Luis Suárez changed Atlético

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The Uruguayan’s signing was met with some derision, but Cholo had a plan to turn Atlético into winners again.

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

The debate over Barcelona’s decision to get rid of Luis Suárez last summer is over.

They were wrong, Atlético Madrid were right.

El Pistolero just fired Atlético to a league title with 21 goals; two of those were game-winners against Osasuna and Real Valladolid in the final two weekends of the season, with Atlético desperate for a victory both times.

No player won more points for his team in what became a story crafted for the big screen.

Diego Simeone could not believe his luck when it became apparent that Suárez was not in Barcelona’s plans last summer. A list of teams that he could not join had been drawn up, but it omitted Atlético. By the time Barcelona tried to veto the move, it was too late.

Suárez had already written the script in his head; he would join Atlético and prove Barcelona wrong.

“He’s different,” Simeone said about Suárez. “A goalscorer, an animal, a killer, a winner. I told him: ‘you know what this is about, you have to transmit that to the rest.’ He came to rebel.”

Real Valladolid CF v Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

As a byproduct of Suárez’s anger and rebellion, there existed a receptiveness to change his role. In his heart of hearts, the Uruguayan might understand why Barcelona got rid of him.

For all the narratives about Barcelona being wrong to sell Suárez, there is a nuance missing from most debates on the topic. Suárez could not fit into Barcelona’s team with the way his body was declining. Barcelona were asking more of Suárez in general play.

Cholo would ask less of his striker, but he needed him to be a killer when it counted. Essentially, that Suárez who played for Liverpool and excelled for Barcelona for so long is gone, and Simeone turned him into a new player.

Simeone needed a winner, and that’s why he used the term “the Suárez Zone” entering the final weeks of the season. He didn’t just want to load the pressure on his summer signing’s shoulders, he wanted to send a warning to the entire league — and he knew Suárez wouldn’t just cope, but thrive on that pressure.

The plan was going perfectly, and Simeone was ready to execute his endgame. Atlético’s stability got them into a position where Suárez could be his ruthless best, as the “killer” Simeone signed in the summer settled the league title.

Simeone streamlines Suárez

El Cholo didn’t like the idea that last season was one of transition for Atlético. They didn’t have enough winners in the squad who could make it count when their backs were to the wall. Simeone has never been a coach to give youth much of a chance, and he knows Atlético’s time is now. The Argentine didn’t need the best players in his squad, he just needed those with the best mentality to carry out his plan.

This season, Suárez touched the ball less than at any time in the past four years. If he had stayed at Barcelona in his previous guise, he was essentially useless to them.

But Simeone, who has long admired Suárez, had a plan.

Atlético had the squad that could absorb the game where Suárez wasn’t his old self, and they could indulge the Uruguayan’s declining physical ability and let him be decisive when it mattered most.

To Atlético, who can afford to play a more old-school number nine, he was perfect.

All of Suárez’ numbers were down last season, as you can see above. He touched the ball less, pressed less, passed less. The only thing that didn’t change was his efficiency in front of goal.

Watching Suárez at times last season was painful. He struggles to beat players for pace anymore and rarely dribbles by a defender. He needs a significant head start to beat a chasing defender once he does get in behind.

But his nous for the number nine role remains second-to-none. This was never more apparent than his side-footed finish against Osasuna to win all three points in the penultimate game of the season, and again when he struck to put Atlético ahead against Valladolid. In years gone by, Suárez might have rounded the keeper in that situation, but he still landed a precise and emphatic left-footed finish to seal the title.

Suárez was made for this role, mainly because Simeone crafted it for him.

Don’t sell to a direct rival

Another massive folly on Barcelona’s part was selling to a direct rival. How could they let a player they know so well leave for a direct rival in every competition they play in?

There was a chance Suárez would come back to hurt them. For all his physical and technical gifts, his greatest faculty is his will to win against the odds.

“No one will get rid of me,” Suárez told ESPN back in February. “I’ll decide when I go.”

The problem with Barcelona’s strategy was not that they got rid of Suárez, but that they did not go far enough in refreshing the squad and replenishing it with world-class players, leaving themselves open to Suárez hurting them. They half-transitioned, sold Suárez and never thought of a solution other than Lionel Messi filling in the cracks.

Suárez said Barcelona undervalued him and that he will be forever grateful to Atlético for opening their doors to him. Maybe Barcelona didn’t undervalue him, but didn’t — or couldn’t — turn into the kind of team that was able to get into “the Suárez Zone.”

Instead, Suárez took Simeone and Atlético there. Now, all parties are changed. They’re champions.

Suárez as a player might be different, but one simple fact remains about El Pistolero; few people have entered the Suárez Zone and left unaffected.