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Atlético & Simeone emerge from 2022 tumult to walk together into the future

El Cholo’s latest contract renewal was announced Thursday.

Atletico Madrid v Celtic - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S.Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

The legend continues.

After a year in which Diego Simeone and Atlético Madrid faced some of their greatest challenges since 2011, the two sides on Thursday came together for yet another contract renewal — the seventh since 2013 — and signed a pact that, if fulfilled, will see Simeone complete 15 full seasons on Atlético’s bench.

“I’m very happy with this renewal,” Simeone — who rarely posts on social media — wrote Thursday. “And (it is a) great commitment for what’s to come.”

A year ago, this was hard to imagine, perhaps even impossible. Exactly 365 days earlier, Atlético lost to Mallorca in the final league game before the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Los Rojiblancos sat fifth in LaLiga and couldn’t win home games. The previous week had seen them dumped out of Europe, bringing up the rear in Champions League Group B.

Chief executive and majority shareholder Miguel Ángel Gil was actively discussing the “post-Simeone era”, publicly pondering whether to appoint then-Spain coach Luis Enrique as El Cholo’s replacement. The squad looked old, imbalanced, and checked out, while certain personalities desperately needed to leave the dressing room.

The turnaround Simeone has engineered over this calendar year has been nothing short of remarkable — and it has made Gil change his tune.

“It’s been possible for Simeone to coach 12 years here because of mutual trust, appreciation and respect,” Gil said in a recorded conversation with Simeone, posted on Thursday to the club’s YouTube channel. “We’re dictated by results, the results have accompanied us, and I hope we continue with them. The two of us have been able to form a beautiful partnership for the club, and the club is growing a lot.”

Earlier this week, Atlético recorded its largest Champions League victory since 1958 (when the competition was the more-exclusive European Cup). The 6-0 win over Celtic pushed Atleti back to the top of Group E with two games still to play. Although Atleti sit fourth in LaLiga, the race is tight — just six points separate Los Colchoneros from surprise leaders Girona with two-thirds of the season remaining. Simeone’s side has the joint-largest goal difference in the league (with Real Madrid) and its last home loss came in January.

“We have regenerated,” Simeone said during his conversation with Gil. “We played one way at one time, today the team has evolved into another kind of team. It doesn’t mean that this one is better, or that that one is better. The team we have simply asks us to play this way, and I want more.”

This “regeneration” is occurring in spite of Gil’s absolute control over the checkbook. Across the past four transfer windows, Atlético have spent less than €70 million to acquire 14 players. Some flopped — Matt Doherty, Sergio Reguilón, and Daniel Wass combined to make 14 appearances under Simeone — but the coach has taken advantage of a silver lining in the lack of transfer spending.

Young players like Pablo Barrios, Samuel Lino, and Rodrigo Riquelme are staking their claims in the team — Riquelme on Friday morning was called up for Spain duty. There long have been question marks around Cholo’s ability to develop young players properly — the 53-year-old is now starting to put those doubts to rest.

Atletico Madrid v Real Sociedad - LaLiga EA Sports
Riquelme has two goals, one assist, and 15 shot-creating actions in 384 minutes this season. He has mainly played at left wing-back.
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The vibe around Atlético right now is arguably as good as it has been since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — that includes the league title win in 2020/21. The rojiblancos are playing more attractively, with more control — in Antoine Griezmann and Álvaro Morata, Simeone has fashioned one of Europe’s most lethal strike partnerships. Griezmann soon will become the club’s all-time top scorer, which will be a cause for celebration and further reflection after the dark days that lined 2022.

Through it all, Simeone continued to work and get his results. Now in his 12th full season on the touchline, he has coached 642 Atlético games (after featuring 173 times as a player) and recorded 380 wins. He’s lost only 18 percent of the games he’s coached. No manager in Primera has coached more seasons consecutively for the same team. Only five other clubs in Europe have qualified for the Champions League group stage across each of the past 11 seasons as Atlético have.

Of course, there has been silverware too under Simeone — two meritorious league titles, in an era when Madrid and Barcelona have been particularly powerful — but there has also been reliability, stability, a connection between coach and fans that pulses deep beneath the surface. It has created this indelible link that has defined an era — and long may it continue.

“Simeone has a great virtue as the coach of Atlético de Madrid, and that is that the fans, the players and the board are with him, we know him and we know that he is capable of anything,” club president Enrique Cerezo said. “That is why we are happy with him, and happy that he has renewed.”

“The footballers know that we want to win,” Simeone told Gil, after accepting a significant salary reduction from him to renew . “We have a group of guys who are convinced that we can do it, and we have to help them from your side (Miguel Ángel) and from my side, so that with our fans, the four legs of this table can be strong.”