Diego Simeone actively cultivated the idea of “Atlético Madrid against the world” last season, but he doesn’t care if other parties don’t buy what he’s selling. He does not see himself as a salesman, at any rate.
“I don’t sell anything, I say what I feel,” he said. “We know how we have got to today. Every year the aim is to be stronger and players now want to come to Atlético. In the last two years they did not understand when I spoke of the transition period and how it is going to happen to everyone, including Real Madrid and Barcelona, because age happens to all of us. We were very competitive in the 2019/20 season, and in the most recent one we made history.”
In an interview which made Marca’s front page Wednesday, Atlético’s long-serving coach touched on various topics — including his second league title as Atleti boss, continuing to challenge FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, and even potential transfers (a topic he tends to avoid).
“Real Madrid and Barcelona know they can’t make mistakes (in the title race),” Simeone said. “We know our place and we want to improve...the reality is that Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Bayern Munich are the historic clubs, but that is not why they will always win.”
Indeed, Barcelona last won LaLiga in 2019, while Madrid endured its first trophy-less season since 2010 as Atlético snatched the title away last season.
“There was a lot of work before May 22 (when Atlético clinched the league),” Simeone said. “Without that previous work, we would not have been able to improve on Atlético’s history. It was about the effort of the club, those difficult moments in 2011 or 2012 in which we select(ed) players that allowed us to grow.”
Koke is the only player still with the club from the day Simeone returned, but Cholo also discussed the contributions from up and down the 2020/21 squad.
“We have a lot of (“Simeone-type players”), with José Maria Giménez, (Mario) Hermoso is getting closer and closer, (Yannick) Carrasco last season,” Simeone said. “I don’t want to forget any of them. Some players took longer like Thomas Lemar. It has been difficult for João Félix, but he is intelligent, he has talent and (has) time to identify himself.
“In that hug at Real Betis, I hugged a son. I told him ‘Ángel, they criticize you for missing chances, but how many do the others have?’ I told him (the goals) would come and not to let up. Football ends up paying you back, and it did so by him scoring a crucial goal (at Valladolid).”
Ángel Correa is one more instance of player and coach’s persistence alike paying off — and his emergence as an important piece to the rojiblanco puzzle is emblematic of the psychological factor Simeone likes to drill into his squad.
“Every major team has good footballers,” he explained. “But talent alone is not enough. It is clear that to get here you have to have it. But at Atlético, you have to have something different, to understand how we play. Commitment, personality, security, strength. We work to manage that state.”
When the interview inevitably turned to Saúl Ñíguez’s future at the club, Simeone was frank about the academy-bred midfielder’s challenging season and how different things might have been.
“You know better than anyone what Saúl has asked for and looked for,” he said, all but confirming the player’s desire to leave the club. “We have known him for eight years. He has shared a lot of time with us. What empowered him to be what he was is his ability to play in different positions and, when his level dropped, the same thing was used (negatively against him).
“After so much time (in one place), players need fresh air and, after so many years, the last season was more difficult for him, although he competed and played many games,” Simeone continued. “It is clear that in the competition with Lemar, if he had been playing well, he would have played over Lemar.”
Meanwhile, Simeone expressed his excitement about new signing Rodrigo De Paul — a Copa America winner who might take Saúl’s place next season.
“He started as a left winger, then he came to Valencia,” Simeone said. “Then he developed at Udinese. I associate his characteristics with Koke, Héctor Herrera, Lemar...we need players (who can step up in the final third) and pause so that the wingers or forwards can attack...we look at the numbers (Marcos) Llorente had, as he scored 12 goals and I don’t know if he will repeat that. So, Saúl, Lemar, De Paul (can) add to that.”
“When I called (De Paul) he said ‘look, Cholo, I have told your club that Atlético was the only club where I wanted to play,’” Simeone recalled. “I replied, ‘see you in 20 days’.”
Finally, Marca asked about the elephant in the room — Antoine Griezmann, and whether Simeone is playing an active role in bringing the Frenchman back to the Wanda Metropolitano. His remarks are open to interpretation.
“We have a very good relationship with Antoine,” Simeone said. “I want the best for him, and hopefully he can break through at Barcelona. It is an extraordinary club, and Antoine is a complete player. At the Euros, he showed again that he can do many things, wherever he is played.
“But today, he’s not with us. I want a player who gave me everything to do well.”