European Football

Diego Simeone’s War Against Football Aesthetics

And why the rampant condescending complaints about “Cholismo” are exactly that…

Earlier this week, Manchester City defeated Atlético Madrid 1-0 in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal match up in a grueling and difficult game at the Etihad Stadium. While not an ideal result for Los Colchoneros, having likely wanted the 0-0 in the away leg, they still likely are going into the second leg at home feeling relatively confident about their ability to reverse the result and pull off the upset.

Much of the English-language reaction to the game, however, did not focus on this possibility or the signs of life from a resurgent Atléti, instead choosing to focus on the specific game plan that Diego Simeone employed in Manchester. If you have ever seen Atléti play, you will likely know what I am talking about.

Steve Nicol and ESPN FC decried it as “anti-football”. Some called it “prehistoric”. Rio Ferdinand actively threw fuel onto a likely nonexistent transfer fire by saying João Félix surely does not enjoy playing for a manager who forces him to play like that, despite the Portuguese’s current form, performances, and general attitude and commitment on and off the pitch indicating that he is now fully buying into what Simeone is asking of him. Eurosport and the New York Times wondered what Atléti even do now. Are they capable of attacking? Do they even know how to score a goal? The Telegraph put out a poll for Premier League supporters asking if they would take Simeone as their manager, a poll which, the last time I checked, was standing around a solid 60%/40% margin in favor of “No”. Many looked back to the controversial second leg between Atléti and Manchester United in the previous round, using this as further evidence for their claims that Atléti under Simeone are nothing more than ruffians and thugs with no interest in actually playing football, that they are attempting to take the “beautiful” out of the beautiful game.

In their eyes, Diego Simeone had declared war on football, committing the high crime of, well, doing what he thought would be best for his team.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Now, I will gladly admit that Simeone’s tactics against City were extreme. This was not necessarily typical of what Atléti have been under Simeone in recent years. This also was a bit more extreme than what the stereotypical Cholismo Atléti teams were in the last half decade. There were times in the first half against City when you could literally draw the lines for Atléti’s formation, a solid 5-5-0 system. Their game plan was obvious: they were not going to win the tie in the first leg, but they were making sure they did not lose it. This likely was going to change in the second half, and the triple substitution of Matheus Cunha, Rodrigo De Paul, and Ángel Correa was probably the moment in which Simeone decided they had their moment to try and sneak a goal. Unfortunately for them, the plan did not work out, as a moment of magic from Phil Foden and Kevin de Bruyne fired City into the lead ten minutes later. Despite this, a 1-0 deficit is not necessarily the worst place to be for Atléti, and while moving on to the semifinals was always a bit of a long shot for them, its still possible.

And this begs the first question when it comes to the loud protestations toward Simeone’s plan: what did you want Atléti to do here? We all surely understand that Atléti want to win, right? It is only natural to have a game plan that gives you the best chance to win in any situation. But you really wanted Atléti to play a high line and play with overlapping fullbacks or any of the other things we all deify Klopp or Guardiola for doing? Because if they did, they would have been destroyed. “Why does Simeone stick with this negative anti-football? Go for it, quit being boring!” the world remarks. But put any of them in Simeone’s shoes and allow them to play that way and Atléti would have lost 8-0, and that is probably not an exaggeration.

You do not beat a team like City by trying to beat them at their own game, which gives them the space they need to attack. There is maybe one team in the entire world that can do that, and that is Liverpool. Most of City’s biggest failings in European competition in recent years, the losses to Spurs, Lyon, and Chelsea in particular, came against teams that were defensively resolute and aimed to deny City the space in attack and hit them on the counter. Sure, it was not necessarily as extreme as what Atléti chose to do here, but given the experience Simeone has in coaching against Pep, I imagine this set up comes from experience in how to succeed against a Guardiola team. It is the exact type of idea that frustrates teams like Man City and Liverpool. I am sure all of the armchair tactical geniuses who want Atléti to play exactly how City want them to play understand this, right?

But it is not just this one time, is it? This is an idea that is not exclusive to Simeone, but it is something that has certainly followed him throughout his time in Madrid. They do not care about this one specific game, journalists are still wondering how Simeone is employed and what it is going to take to “liberate” his players from his rule. It is, frankly, quite condescending and elitist, and it is done to discredit Cholo Simeone as a manager and take away from his achievements since he took over at Atléti a decade ago. And in this modern context, these stereotypes raises two significant problems.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Firstly, they are not really true anymore, now are they? We are not far removed from the classic defensive Atléti teams that averaged in the low-to-mid 50s when it comes to goals scored per season, but ignoring Atléti’s recent evolution is wildly unfair. Atlético Madrid are, as of time of writing, the second-highest scoring team in LaLiga this season, level with Barcelona and narrowly ahead of Real Betis, two teams that have been (rightfully) praised for their attacking intent. On expected goals, Atléti are, as of time of writing, fourth in LaLiga, only behind Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Villarreal. They are also one of only two teams in LaLiga that, as of writing, have more than one player with over ten league goals this season (Ángel Correa and Luis Suárez), the other being Real Madrid. Last season, when Atléti won the league title, they were, again, the joint-second highest scoring team in the league that season and fifth on expected goals. Sure, they are not setting the world alight or putting up ridiculous numbers, but this is clearly a team that knows how to put the ball in the back of the net. Asking if they “know how to attack” is absurd.

This also hints at one of the oldest stereotypes regarding Simeone and Atléti: attacking players that put on the red and white shirt cannot prosper as Simeone is unable to coach creative attacking talent. And that would certainly be true outside of the counterpoint of Diego Costa, and Antoine Griezmann, and Yannick Carrasco, and Ángel Correa, and Marcos Llorente, and Thomas Lemar, and Renan Lodi, and Luis Suárez, and Matheus Cunha…you get the idea, right?

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Now there is certainly at least an element of truth in this idea. Thomas Lemar’s early struggles for Atléti are the perfect example of how there is an adaptation needed for some players when they join a Simeone team, but we cannot discuss that adaptation requirement without discussing the player Lemar has become since he joined Atlético Madrid, and the credit for Lemar’s evolution has to be given to Simeone.

There are tangible examples of his coaching of attacking players, and Ángel Correa is the prime example. He was never quite consistent with Atlético Madrid in previous years, and after a particularly difficult performance away to Betis last season left the striker in tears, Simeone went out of his way to comfort the player, work with him individually after trainings to help improve his attacking movement and finishing, and worked his hardest to restore the player’s confidence and self-belief. There is quite literally video evidence of this, as it was captured in the Amazon documentary “Otra forma de entender la vida”, which covered Atléti’s season in 2020/21. Correa repaid this by being one of Atléti’s best players in the second half of last season, scoring the equalizer against Real Valladolid in the game that won Atléti the league title, continuing to be one of Atléti’s best players this season, and winning LaLiga Player of the Month in January 2022.

Do people choose not to see this? How does this ridiculous idea still hang around?

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Sure, Atlético Madrid are not as proficient in attack as City or Liverpool. Sure, they do not score absurd amounts of goals. But they are still a very good side on both ends of the pitch, and the progress they have had under Simeone from being largely an underdog team to rightfully belonging among Europe’s elite deserves immense praise. Their stereotypes and misconceptions have preceded them for too long. Even against United, where they were rather difficult and aggressive, Atléti were still the better side over the two legs and maybe should have scored more than one goal at Old Trafford. Sure, we all talked about the “dark arts” that Simeone’s team employed in the second half, but should we have ignored how many times Griezmann and Félix cut through the United defense? The English media did not view it as pleasing to the eye, but you cannot question the effectiveness of Atléti’s style and Simeone’s system.

Which brings us to the second issue: why can’t Cholismo be exciting? What exactly makes Atlético Madrid less intense or exciting as other teams, especially the current iteration of this team? What gives these former players and journalists the power to dictate what is “good” football and what is “bad” football? I feel fairly confident that none of the talking heads who parrot this “anti-football” stuff really have an answer to this. Football is very much a blank canvass sport, it can be played in many different ways using many different set ups influenced by many different ideas. We cannot just deem one specific way, the way that the English and specifically Man City and Liverpool deem good, to be the only way to play football and immediately discredit anyone who does not fit that image. That has never happened in this sport. Even during the peak of Dutch “Total Football”, maybe the most influential concepts of this sport, West Germany won a World Cup over the Netherlands by nullifying their “Total Football” style.

And why can’t we feel riveted watching Atléti? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all, and I certainly am among those who view the tenacity and spirit that Atléti play with as beautiful. Simeone himself described it perfectly after that famous Liverpool game two years ago, saying his style of play was playing “to win, with all our soul”. Atléti’s success last season, seeing a team put every ounce of their heart and soul on the line to win a league title, was one of the most riveting football stories of the last several years. I understand if people do not agree with me. I am totally fine if you, reader, do not share these views. There is no one right way to play football, but to use this as a crutch to discredit one of the best managers in the world is absurd. He has overcome the Barça-Real Madrid duopoly twice, he came 30 seconds away from completing a league and Champions League double with Atléti in 2014, he took a club that was in financial disarray and survived relegation to being among the top teams in Spanish football consistently. Discrediting Cholo Simeone because his style is not appealing to you is ludicrous.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Atléti probably will not win the Champions League this season. They might not even eliminate Man City. But their game plan in the first leg was not football heathenism. Simeone was not trying to destroy the sport. He was not playing “anti-football”. He was simply employing a different way to play the sport. Everything you have heard about him is not entirely true, it is just entitled people with media platforms being angry.

You do not have to like the style, you do not have to like the man, but Cholo Simeone has done enough to earn your respect.

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