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Cholo Simeone hits key point in managerial tenure as Atlético travel to Man United

Will Tuesday’s visit to Old Trafford be the Champions League swan song for Atlético’s greatest manager?

CA Osasuna v Club Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

A few nights ago, I watched Todd Haynes’s new Velvet Underground documentary on Apple TV+. I have long been familiar with the Velvets’s work and I especially enjoy their first two albums, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” and “White Light/White Heat,” which feature influential multi-instrumentalist John Cale.

I’m drawn to the Velvet Underground’s first records (about 89 minutes of music in all) in part due to their subversive nature. Cale’s proficiency on the viola and bass guitar added a droning, surreal quality that underscored the affectless Lou Reed’s lyrics, which shocked listeners with its radical subject matter. These albums sold poorly, and the public simply wasn’t ready for such a jarring combination. Cale left the band after its second album was released in 1968, and Reed transformed them into a radio-friendly pop/rock outfit before departing himself in 1970.

A similar revolutionary spirit inspired me to begin watching Atlético Madrid games a decade ago. Diego Simeone’s first years back at the Vicente Calderón saw a Rojiblanco rise as rapid as it was incredible. There was no great secret to what Atlético were doing between roughly 2013 and 2018, but that didn’t make it any less novel or enticing to me.

Simeone’s sides would dominate sans possession — bucking the trend of expansive, possession-based, press-heavy football that popped up all across Europe. Gabi Fernández and Tiago Mendes often sat at the heart of a supremely-organized smash-mouth 4-4-2. The ball was funneled wide and laterally to the opposing full-backs, forcing them into attempting hopeless cross after hopeless cross — which Diego Godín and company routinely cleared.

Opponent upon opponent was left feeling so close to getting a result while Atleti punched in, won 1-0, and punched out. Onto the next. Partido a partido, over and over, on the way to seven trophies between May 2012 and August 2018.

In his fascinating book “Inverting the Pyramid,” football journalist Jonathan Wilson explains the history behind the sport’s tactics and the constant innovation needed to keep up.

“Evolution never stops: to keep doing the same thing over and over is to wait for extinction,” he writes.

The demand for continued advancement is a byproduct of the current age. We are overloaded with information that heightens the senses, dulls them, then raises them again. “Good enough” is not, well, good enough. Fans insist on having more.

Cholo Simeone has tried to meet this need for “more.” He did during the 2020/21 season, when Atlético changed its base formation and held on to win LaLiga after nearly squandering a 10-point lead atop the table. But for most of the 2021/22 season, this need has not been met.

Real Sociedad v Atletico de Madrid - Copa Del Rey Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Atlético’s LaLiga title defense disintegrated early, all but ending in November. Opponents had figured out how to combat the 3-5-2 formation Simeone introduced in 2020, forcing Cholo to shepherd league title hero Luis Suárez onto the bench and revert to a 4-4-2 that looked like one in name only. The Rojiblancos were a shell of themselves and exited both domestic cup competitions meekly in January. Reports about the coach’s future emerged following a deplorable 1-0 home loss to Levante last month.

It looked as if Simeone was a man losing his way, and Atlético’s shifting identity was “no identity at all.” Cholismo’s guiding principles — centered on counterattacking, sacrifice, and above all collective intensity — were disappearing from the team’s matches. For the balance of this season (now 38 games old with at least 12 fixtures still to come), Atleti have appeared utterly directionless, like Little Carmine’s boat after Johnny Sack sank it.

A recent spell of good form has changed the prevailing dynamic, though. Back to Wilson, writing in “Inverting the Pyramid”:

“For players to hold their position was a reactive way of playing; with a proactive outlook, positions gave value only relative to other positions; far more important are the principles by which players adopt their positions.”

Entering Tuesday night’s Champions League clash with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United, Atlético are on a five-game unbeaten run that includes four consecutive wins in LaLiga and a 1-1 draw with the Red Devils last month. Since the Levante loss, Atleti have conceded just twice in league play. The Colchoneros are realigned in a proactive and more-modern 4-4-2, which sees them running more and pressing cohesively.

They are also weaponizing João Félix’s sizzling form in a way they haven’t before. The Portuguese has scored five goals in the past five games, all of which he has started. In four, he has applied at least 10 ball pressures.

In this moment, João looks every bit like the club’s most-expensive player ever. Of course, he came spring-loaded with skill when purchased in 2019. But if this form more-or-less holds, João absorbing a core Cholismo tenet — that collective work will help the individual shine — ranks as another success story for Simeone. It did the trick for Antoine Griezmann, who in 2014 arrived as a dainty and ill-fitting but promising winger and within two years secured a podium finish for the Ballon d’Or.

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

However, what we have learned about Atlético this season — Simeone’s 10th full campaign in charge — is not to bother lodging serious predictions.

This is because Atlético are on track to concede nearly 50 times in LaLiga and hold a slim two-point edge over Real Betis for fourth place in LaLiga. Defeat at Old Trafford on Tuesday would seriously dampen the Rojiblancos’ newfound momentum. It wouldn’t come as a shock — Cholo will be missing two right-backs and two of his most-creative players (Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Lemar), while he’s also sweating out José Giménez and Geoffrey Kondogbia’s injuries.

Plus, the other side has Ronaldo, who warmed up for this game with a hat trick against Tottenham on Saturday and lives to put Atleti out of this competition.

Atlético still have so much to lose in a season where so much has gone wrong. Even if Simeone’s men survive the Man United tie, the club could stand to lose €60 million without Champions League qualification next season. Salaries would be cut. Sales would be made. With little investment in that scenario, Simeone’s seat would heat up again.

Maybe he’s beginning to tire anyway. After 565 games managed, it’s almost expected. Atlético are facing another squad overhaul in the summer, with 6-8 new signings needed. Cholo and his father insist in the former’s recently-released Prime Video docuseries “Living Match by Match” that the Argentina job is a great future desire. The 51-year-old has also made clear he would like to manage Inter Milan, another beloved from his playing days.

Modern fans demand “more” — more transfers, more money spent, more-attractive football, more comfortable wins. Everything, it seems, except “more years.” Tuesday will go a long way toward answering how much more Diego Simeone’s Atlético can give us — and regardless of the result, allow for an appreciation of the journey so far before planning for all tomorrow’s parties.