Diego Simeone under unexpected pressure as Atletico Madrid endure bumpy transition
Argentine has been one of the most successful and longest-serving manager in recent years but is facing scrutiny after a disappointing start to the season
Ten days from now, Atletico Madrid will mark the eighth anniversary of the best thing that happened to the club this century. On December 23 2011, they unveiled a new manager, Diego Simeone.
At the time supporters were appeased rather than wildly optimistic. Simeone, then 41, had been a popular midfielder for two spells at Atletico and though he enjoyed some success coaching in his native Argentina, he never seemed to stay anywhere very long.
At Atletico, the expectation was that he would be there for the short-term, at best after hauling the club into the upper half of the Spanish first division. This, after all, was Atletico, notorious for trigger-happy governance and an absurdly high turnover of coaches. Simeone was their 11th appointment in a decade.
Fast forward to December 2019, and Simeone is by far the longest-serving manager in elite club football. A point of comparison: in the time Simeone has been managing Atletico, the respected Carlo Ancelotti has been and gone from clubs in four different countries.
It is now almost as hard to imagine Atletico without Simeone prowling the touchline - and he is a ferocious prowler, in his dark shirts and suits - as it once was to envisage Manchester United without Alex Ferguson, or Arsenal without Arsene Wenger.
And yet, whisper it, the thought is creeping into the minds of one or two Atletico loyalists that even this magician, architect of a Liga title, two Europa Leagues and two Champions League finals, might have an expiry date.
These are not happy times. Lose to Osasuna on Saturday and it is possible Atletico will enter the ninth year of the Simeone epoch no higher in the domestic table than they were when his predecessor Gregoria Manzano was sacked and the club made their inspired decision to try out Simeone.
Atletico averted a genuine crisis on Wednesday night by collecting the points they needed, at home to lacklustre Lokomotiv Moscow, to make the last 16 of the Champions League. Their 2-0 victory acted as a balm to what was developing into a neurosis about goals.
Until Joao Felix converted his team’s second of two penalties - Kieron Trippier had missed the first - against Lokomotiv, Atletico had gone five hours and 17 minutes without scoring.
Extravagant scorelines have never been a feature of Simeone-era Atletico. Quite the contrary. The manager’s achievement has been to make a flaky club into a rugged, resistant force, with a defensive excellence admired throughout Europe and a never-say-die spirit tied to effective counter-attacking.
But the goal deficit this season has become a serious handicap. The 16 goals they have gouged out of 16 Liga matches is not only the worst ratio of the Simeone years, it is the poorest return of any start to a campaign for 83 years, including the disastrous relegation season of 1999-2000.
One cause is obvious. In the summer Atletico lost perhaps the finest star Simeone has developed when Antoine Griezmann, the club’s top scorer for each of the last five seasons, triggered his release clause and joined Barcelona.
Simeone had made contingency plans: at the first signs of Griezmann’s restlessness, Diego Costa and then Alvaro Morata were recruited from Chelsea, Costa returning for a third spell at Atletico, Morata initially signed on loan but soon to be permanent, for a €65 million (Dh266m) fee.
Costa, an old ally of Simeone’s and once a figurehead for Atletico’s combative style, has been hampered by injury and is barely half as effective as a leader of the line as he was when he spearheaded Atletico to the 2014 Liga title.
That is a blow to Simeone, who has a unique capacity for reviving the form of his old favourites. Under Simeone a clutch of Atletico players - like Fernando Torres and Felipe Luis - came back for second spells and thrived.
Meanwhile Morata, once of Atletico’s youth system, looked a good fit for the traditional Simeone style, with his strength in the air. Consistency has eluded him. He had a goal-per-game run for four league matches in October and November, but either side of that drew a blank in eight games.
As for Joao Felix, in whom Atletico invested the €120m they gained from Griezmann’s move, he only turned 20 last month, and though his maturity is as striking as his talent, he cannot carry the bulk of the goalscoring burden.
“The numbers tell the truth,” said Simeone of the barren league run. Other numbers tell that Atletico spent more on new signings - €220m - in the summer than they ever had.
“The results will come,” the manager said. “I believe in my players and in the team because I see how hard they are working.”
Updated: December 12, 2019 06:27 PM