Few coaches have influenced modern football like Marcelo Bielsa of Argentina has. ‘El Loco’, or the madman, as he is called for his football ideas and heart-stopping antics on the sidelines, laid the tactical foundation upon which younger managers such as Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola erected the edifice of their career.
The high-pressing, high-line defence, classic playmaker-less, hyper-active brand of football that is played across continents these days came from the marvelous Bielsa. Even current Liverpool and former Borussia Dortmund manager Juergen Klopp’s tactics traces its roots to Bielsa, though the German had not crossed paths with the Argentine like Pochettino or Guardiola. The Tottenham Hotspur manager had played under Bielsa while Guardiola, who is also heavily influenced by late Johan Cruyff, met the Argentine for a long counselling session before taking over the job at Barcelona.
There is another Argentine coach who is gradually, but surely, climbing the steps to be among the pantheon of football: Diego Simeone of Atletico Madrid. Simeone shares a few traits with Bielsa, the head master-like control over the team and the obsessive preparation for each game amongst them. The tactical template, however, isn’t a replica. Simeone’s Atletico, which broke the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid with the league triumph in 2013-14, had many similarities with Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan or Chelsea; they do not defend with a risky high line or press that intensely up front, but sit back and absorb pressure to break forward at the opportune moment.
The reliance on wingers, vital for counter-attack minded teams, and attacking midfielders who are less fleet-footed ‘creators’ and more tactically aware ‘influencers’, are traits Simeone shares with Mourinho. The willingness to let the opposition keep possession in their half of the pitch but relentlessly fighting for it in the other or on the flanks is also shared by Mourinho. It is no surprise that Deigo Costa easily adapted to Mourinho’s Chelsea after the move from Atletico in 2014.
Over the seasons, however, Simeone has made a few variations to this 4-4-2 template, depending on who the opposition of the day was. For instance, as Jake Meador of The Inside Channel points out, against Real Betis early this month, a game which Atletico won 5-1, the team was more adventurous, pressing the opposition not just in the defensive half, but much further as well. A bit like Bielsa where defence begins right from the striker.
Also, unlike Mourinho, Simeone did not spend a whole lot of money to build the formidable side that Atletico have become since his appointment in 2011.
Atletico are the serial sellers of world football. It is a truth managers have to make peace with at Atletico. Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao, David Villa and Costa have all been pivotal to the team before their departure to richer clubs.
The revolving door, however, never disoriented Simeone. “It is normal that Chelsea are interested in him. They have good economic potential. [Samuel] Eto’o is getting older and Diego Costa can do his work, but right now he’s ours,” the Argentine said in 2014.
With his work ethic, tactics and relationship he has built
with the players, he formed an Atletico side that mirrors his style, combative and resilient. Since 2011, right-back Juanfran, club captain and central midfielder Gabi, attacking midfielder Koke and centre-back Diego Godin have played over 150 league games for Simeone, forming the backbone of the side.
Juanfran, Godin and Gabi in particular are the kind of footballers Simeone was. Even Koke, the assist king at Atletico, is different from the kind of attacking players Spain regularly churns out: David Silva, Santi Cazorla and the like.
Arda Turan, now at Barcelona, was another key player for Atletico, featuring in over 100 league games under the Argentine. With them, Simeone first won the Europa League in 2012, then the Super Cup, before the Copa del Rey in 2013 and La Liga in 2013-14.
As Turan left, Simeone looked to the club academy, promoting Saul Niguez to the right flank than relying on the transfer window.
The slightly evolved, yet compact Atletico currently are equal on points with Barcelona in La Liga while they made the last four of the Champions League at the Catalans’ expense. With the core of the team crossing 30, this perhaps is the right time to crown Simeone’s achievements at Atletico. A double would be a good way to do that.