Atletico Madrid are a club that posit themselves as underdogs. That’s how they like it, even though they are the reigning La Liga champions.
They do things their way, and as was laid bare last week at the Etihad Stadium, they aren’t afraid to dig in deep and defend for their lives.
Diego Simeone, their coach and spiritual leader, adapted his already deeply conservative 4-5-1 system in-game to a rarely seen 5-5-0 set-up, and kept one of the best attacking sides on the planet at arm’s length from Jan Oblak’s goal for most of the game, until Kevin de Bruyne picked the lock and earned Manchester City a 1-0 lead.
Simeone’s negative tactics and Atletico Madrid’s ‘sh*thousery’ was heavily criticised by some pundits, with former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand suggesting that players, including €126 million (£105m/$137m) acquisition Joao Felix, don’t enjoy themselves while with the Rojiblancos.
“I can’t imagine he sits there and enjoys playing the way he’s asked to play,” Ferdinand argued on BT Sport.
“For a player like Joao Felix, he can’t be sitting there on the plane home going, ‘They got the best out of me, they continually get the best out of me as a player.' He won’t be saying that.”
This season especially, there’s an element of exaggeration to the narrative, with Atletico scoring 57 goals in La Liga this season, just six behind top scorers Real Madrid.
However, it is true that, in big matches, Simeone wants the team to play a cautious, gritty game.
While some individual players may prefer easier rides elsewhere, Simeone is an inspirational manager who, over the past decade at the helm of Atletico, has overseen their most successful period and helped some lesser lights overachieve, competing with the best players in the world at Barcelona and Real Madrid.Getty
Atletico have reached two Champions League finals and won La Liga twice, and many players who leave later decide to return, realising that they’ll never have it as good anywhere else, even if it means they have to run until they’ve sweated out every last drop of fluid in their body, or sacrifice individual glory for the collective benefit.
Antoine Griezmann is the most recent example, having departed for Barcelona but returned as quickly as possible, while Diego Costa, Fernando Torres, Yannick Carrasco and Filipe Luis also all came back to the Vicente Calderon or Wanda Metropolitano.
“Doubting Cholo Simeone is crazy,” Rodrigo de Paul told GOAL. “He is one of the best coaches in the world, he knows exactly what he wants.
"And when things don't go well it's because of everybody, and when they go well, it is too. This is a club, a team. In good times and bad, we all know that we have our responsibilities.
“We know that Simeone is the head of this team, the one who manages this ship and we are all on that ship. We believe in what he tells us and, above all, it’s because of the way of transmitting it that El Cholo has.”
That was evident in the way that Jan Oblak and Geoffrey Kondogbia spoke calmly to the media in Manchester after the game, despite the 1-0 defeat ahead of Wednesday’s second leg.
“We played a good game, respecting the plan,” said Kondogbia on Movistar.
“I believe in the team, I believe everything is possible,” added Oblak. “We came here to get a good result, we lost but I think that the tie is alive. We defended well the whole game, apart from the goal.”
Both players seemed content, smiling, happy to head back to the Spanish capital and the fiery Wanda Metropolitano, where the second half of the tie will unfold.
They both seem fully indoctrinated into the Simeone ‘cult’, believing in the word of their coach completely.Getty
That’s the vibe that you get, and former midfielder Tiago Mendes even described the coach as a ‘god’.
Tiago, who signed for Atletico in 2010 under Gregorio Manzano, noticed the many differences after Simeone took over, leading the team to La Liga glory in 2014.
“I think for us, for all the club, he’s like a god,” he explained. “He arrived at the club and changed everything.
"What he says comes true. If he asks him to jump from a bridge, we jump. I think he knows a lot of football. We as a group follow him, and we’re very proud to have him as a coach.”
When you believe in your coach to that extent, you are willing to curb your natural attacking instincts and fight for the team, because you believe in the plan he has for you and for the group.
Griezmann is a good example, arriving as a mercurial winger from Real Sociedad and turning into a hard-working centre-forward. Lethal in attack and tireless in his defensive output.
Simeone helped him become “what I always dreamed of being,” admitted Griezmann, who jumped at the chance to return in the summer of 2021 after a difficult spell at Barcelona.
“I wanted to go back to Atletico, however it had to happen,” he explained. “I am very content, very happy. Simeone helped me reach my best level and for that reason I wanted to go back.”
The French striker admitted to L’Equipe in 2018 that the first months under Simeone were tough but the grind was worth it.
“It took six months for me to get used to defending but now I like it,” said Griezmann.
“Sometimes with the national team, the coach tells me to defend less, but it comes automatically. Simeone taught me how to defend and I will always be grateful to him for it. Now, I love defending.”Getty/GOAL
Simeone also proved a father figure for Angel Correa at times, including in his darkest spell in front of goal. Even though most view Simeone as someone you don’t want to get on the wrong side of, he knows how and when to use an arm around the shoulder – literally.
Correa “hit rock bottom on April 11, 2021” according to AS, after missing big chances in a defeat against Real Betis. He left the pitch in tears and Simeone hurried to him, to console him and bring him close. “An iconic image,” added AS.
“I hope he gets what he deserves, which is goals,” said Simeone. Then, Correa exploded and won the title for him, with five goals in the last eight matches.
“He has a lot of balls and I like people like that,” admitted Cristiano Ronaldo, who often proved Simeone and Atletico’s most bitter enemy during his time at Real Madrid.
Famously, City coach Pep Guardiola let Simeone view a training session at Barcelona back in 2009 before the Argentine was coaching in Europe.
“It doesn’t do it for me, I don’t like it,” Simeone told Guardiola that day, of his tactics and how Barcelona attacked and pressed high up the pitch.
“I just thought, ‘This f*cker is going to be good,’” Guardiola recalled in Amazon Prime’s documentary on Simeone.
Another player who left and struggled afterwards was Arda Turan. The Turkish midfielder excelled at Atletico but after arriving at Barcelona he said he was grateful he didn’t have to run so much. However, his career fell to pieces after departing.
“Arda Turan would love to have this training again after experimenting with other ways of working,” said Atletico’s fitness coach Oscar Ortega. Many find it hard to adapt to the methodology, but later it pays off.
"Griezmann, Arda, it was very hard for them but once they adapted to the way of working and training they reached a really high level.”
Ortega, called ‘El Profe’ (the teacher), is a tough taskmaster and Atletico’s training sessions are notoriously brutal.
But when you believe in the end goal and the method, like Simeone’s pupils do, it becomes your way of life. And it’s as appealing as any other.
“I like the way City play," said Koke. "I love the way Atleti play, with that passion, that grit, with people who give everything. I love both styles.”