As the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off in November, Diego Simeone was under more pressure than he had been under at perhaps any other time in his spell as Atlético Madrid coach.
His brand of football was scrutinized, his style criticised, his whole philosophy trashed. He was blamed for the underperformance of attacking players like João Félix and questioned over the defensive insecurity. They said that Cholismo was dead.
Yet, the Qatar World Cup has revived Cholismo to its peak in an entirely different form. It’s made clear the importance of the legacy that Simeone will leave behind whenever his time with Atlético comes to an end.
It is Walid Regragui’s Morocco that has revived the mid-2010s Cholismo, on their way to a World Cup semifinal next week against reigning champions France. Using a 4-1-4-1 which can revert into a 5-4-1, Morocco have built a strong defensive unit that has conceded only one goal (an own goal at that) in this World Cup.
The defensive structure has frustrated European giants Croatia, Belgium, Spain and Portugal, and Morocco have looked deadly on the counter thanks to speedy wingers and a big center-forward (Youssef En-Nesyri) leading the line.
“This Morocco has an air of the good times of Cholo Simeone: a team that runs, that bites, that defends, that knows how to wait and that knows how to kill when it is right,” José Luis Guerrero wrote for Relevo.
“We played Simeone-style and won,” Sevilla and Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou said after the 3-0 penalty shootout win over Spain in the last 16. “I have to thank all my teammates who have helped me enormously. It was a colossal effort. I applaud them for their work. We have to stay focused and keep in mind what lies ahead.”
Bono would know well, having had a stint with Atlético Madrid between 2012 and 2016, making 47 appearances for the club’s B team while Cholismo was at its peak.
“We had a big heart, we didn’t leave spaces and we had technical players who make the difference. Our style of play was similar to the one we used against Spain, and it’s similar to Cholo Simeone’s too,” Moroccan coach Regragui explained after Saturday’s 1-0 over Portugal thanks to an En-Nesyri goal. “Some people say something that it’s not good, but he’s performed it very well. We are doing really well tactically.”
Regragui has followed Simeone’s tactics closely. He began his coaching career in 2012 just as Simeone was building his Atlético Madrid team. This came only six years after Regragui had played for Racing Santander in Spain, and he actually made one appearance against Atlético Madrid in a 2-1 win in March 2005 (though he never shared the field with Simeone).
After retiring as a player, Regragui learned his trade as an assistant to Rachid Taoussi for Morocco, and he went on to spend six years with Faith Union Sport in his home country and had a brief spell with Al-Duhail in Qatar. This year he found real success, winning a double through the Moroccan league and the CAF Champions League with Wydad AC, leading to his appointment as Morocco’s national team coach in August.
That gave him only a little over two months to install his philosophy into a talented squad. The media were not convinced, insultingly calling him “Mr. Avocado Head,” but he has stunned both fans and admirers the world over.
Morocco’s mid- to low-block does not just sit deep and defend with 10 men behind the ball at all times. It invites the opposition to dominate possession and then looks to counter through a direct approach and incredible strength at set pieces. The strategy and its execution are reminiscent of the best Atlético teams under Simeone’s leadership.
The African side have already made history by becoming the first to reach the World Cup semi-finals, inspired by an Argentine in Madrid. Simeone may not be enjoying the best moment of his career, but his legacy lives on — and it’s clear that Cholismo still has plenty of adherents.