It is difficult to know when Atletico Madrid and manager Diego Simeone will reach the end of their cycle together.
Together they have reached highs once thought unthinkable for a club that prides itself on heartbreak. Equally, both club and manager have at times endured each other. The flaws of each deemed to sometimes stifle the other’s potential.
Having won La Liga in 2013/14, and played bridesmaid in two Champions League finals to their city rivals, understanding what the completed mission for Simeone looks like has changed during his tenure. That league title has not been built on, so many might ask whether one final run back at it is the final chapter. They have been knocked out of Europe already, perhaps closing the door on that elusive Champions League glory they came so close to.
This December will mark a decade at the helm for Simeone. An incredible length of prolonged brilliance and overperformance. At the time of writing, Atleti are four points clear at the top of La Liga with Barcelona and Real Madrid close in tandem. Will this finally be the final scene in this gritty, at times brutal, long running series?
Say the end is approaching for Simeone in Madrid. That this season will be his final, potentially saying goodbye with the second league title. Who will be next to carry the mantle and start the next era for Atletico?
What are we looking for?
In the last edition of this series, we looked at potential successors to Gian Piero Gasperini at Atalanta. In that process it was important to consider tactical suitability to carry forward Gasperini’s unique blueprint. Equally the ability to work to a minimal budget, and improve players of limited individual ability, was paramount.
This process will look for less tangible factors. Of course it is important to look at Atletico’s squad and assess coaches who would utilise its components well. However Simeone’s impact and legacy are far greater than just his work on the pitch.
Atletico and Simeone are intertwined spiritually. Here is a club that have christened themselves ‘El pupas’: the jinxed ones. Their history is littered with final defeats and being nearly men. The 2013/14 Champions League final loss to Real, recent proof of this phenomena, being 1-0 up until the dying seconds. Sergio Ramos would equalise in injury time, and Real would go on to win 4-1 for their tenth European title.
Simeone’s embodiment of the cornered dog, fighting back and never relenting, endear him to the fans. Any successor would be hard pushed to follow suit in this manner, but equally a coach with character and spark to galvanise supporters will be preferential.
On the pitch, tactical flexibility is key. Simeone has rarely deviated from a 4-4-2 throughout his reign, played in a reactive, defensively compact style to first and foremost avoid defeat. This has of course brought great success, and further strengthened the club’s underdog mentality. However a coach to bring some added attacking flair and occasionally release the dog from its leash, will only heighten the squad’s potential.
Atletico are a powerful club, and will attract interest from an elite calibre of manager. Therefore identifying candidates will likely not be affected by their profile nor cost to hire. Simeone after all is the highest paid coach in world football.
- Expressive and powerful character
- Tactically flexible
- Not to be affected by size of club
Candidate 1: Marcelo Gallardo
Current job: River Plate (Argentina)
Were Atletico to pluck Marcelo Gallardo out of Argentina to be their next coach, it would hardly be untrodden ground. Their 2011 appointment of then Racing Club manager Simeone suggests their willingness to tap into international markets.
Gallardo is River Plate’s most successful coach ever. In his seven years in charge, the club have won three Argentinian Cups, two Copa Libertadores, and three Copa Sudamericanas. As is being debated with Simeone, it might now be a question of when he decides he has achieved all he can. River were Libertadores semi-finalists in 2020, although have not won the Primera División since 2014. Already the club’s greatest manager, now might be the time to try his hand in Europe.
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Gallardo has favoured a 4-4-2 during his tenure at River, but not in the way Simeone has defined. Atleti have often fielded four central midfielders in this formation to narrow the pitch and stifle opposition possession. Gallardo on the other hand rotates between a diamond, with a creative midfielder at the tip and energetic box-to-box players at the side, or a 4-2-2-2 where the most advanced midfield two are both creative players. Atletico certainly have the personnel to play in this way, and would allow them a gear change not often seen at current.
His willingness to use creative midfielders as part of the midfield, and not within the forward line, would afford the likes of João Félix and Thomas Lemar more expressive freedom. They are currently tasked with either scoring or defending, and not the license to just create, so this would be a welcome adjustment. Gallardo has also shown flexibility to move to a back three, something that would make the most of Kieran Trippier and allow Saul and Koke to anchor centrally.
To survive, nevermind thrive, in Argentine football for close to a decade is testament to Gallardo’s spirit and character. Like Simeone, his bite and abrasiveness serve to rally his team and define their identity. Atletico’s plump for a lesser known Argentine in 2011 was inspired. Gallardo is a far greater manager than Simeone was pre-Atletico. His tactics could refine and elevate the squad, and his personality evoke the same fire as El Cholo.
Candidate 2: José Bordalás
Current job: Getafe (Spain)
If Marcelo Gallardo adds attacking flair and incision, José Bordalás symbolises a very different candidate. The current Getafe coach is approaching thirty years in management, in which he has worked in fifteen clubs.
His fifteenth and latest role has been a remarkable one. Taking over at Getafe in 2016, he won promotion to La Liga at the first time of asking. In his first season in the top flight, Getafe recorded a brilliant eighth placed finish, conceding only thirty three goals. The following year, they finished fifth, conceding fewer goals than Real Madrid in third, and champions Barcelona.
Branded ‘anti-football’, Bordalás’ style is not an aesthetic one. A strict 4-4-2 with full backs often playing wide midfield, Bordalás would not make for a cultured turn for Atletico. A league high one hundred bookings this season, and topping the foul charts, show what Getafe are about.
It would be disrespectful to label a team that have finished as high as fifth, two seasons ago, as merely thugs however. Gritty and dogged, undoubtedly. Bordalas has produced remarkable results from a largely unremarkable squad. They throw long balls forward so to keep the opposition at arms length, and force high turnovers to exploit possession shapes in transition.
Like Simeone’s Atletico, Getafe are intense pressers but not by sheer volume. They rarely engage inside their own defensive third, instead camping out and waiting for a trigger. Atletico’s trigger is opposition mis-controlling a pass, whilst Getafe wait for a pass wide to the full back to engage.
Bordalás is a spiky character. Known to invoke carnage on dressing rooms and unsuspecting training equipment, his fire is embodied by his side. Atletico fans will be familiar with his work, and likely see a lot of Simeone in him. Whether he can take the club to the next level and regularly challenge in Europe with a higher calibre of player to he is accustomed, is debatable.
The modern superstar player Atletico are now attracting is not as malleable as those Bordalás appoints as his foot soldiers. Having seen the miracles he has worked so far however, one imagines his tactical eye and pragmatic approach could suit a club built around such qualities.
An unsurprising selection? Not really. A boring one? Definitely not. If Simeone were to pick his own successor, our money would be on Bordalás to receive the call.
Candidate 3: Massimiliano Allegri
Current job: Free agent
For every high profile job that has come onto the market since summer 2019, there has been one name to feature on supposed club shopping lists. Arsenal, Barcelona, PSG, Tottenham, Bayern Munich, Chelsea. Max Allegri has been linked to every one, including the Juventus role from which he was released in 2019.
Allegri’s record is impeccable. Five successive league titles with Juventus, four Italian Cups and two Champions League finals. Those two European finals, both times beaten by Real Madrid. You can see where this is going.
However this candidacy is not on the premise of shared Los Blancos hatred. An enemy of my enemy is my friend etcetera. It is Allegri’s time at AC Milan that arguably stand him out as a perfect Atletico coach. He won the Scudetto with Milan in 2011, the last time they triumphed domestically, and the last time Juventus did not. In his first full season at the club, he wrestled the league title back from European champions Inter and conceded only twenty four goals in the process.
His work at Juventus too was founded on solid defence. The famed trio of Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci were ever present, often in a 3-5-2. His use of Paulo Dybala as a second striker playing off Gonzalo Higuain could easily be imagined as a template for João Félix to thrive. Given the Portuguese’s enormous price tag, coaxing the best from him is a club interest.
Allegri is not a touchline catherine wheel like Simeone. He is often a reserved character, statesman-like in his poise and composure. However, he is certainly equipped to step into a job as big as this. Five years in Turin, where winning the league is no longer considered enough to sustain a job, is testament to this.
There would arguably be no better man to make Atletico consistent title and European challengers. Allegri is a pragmatic winner, flexible in his tactical designs, and a reliable bet. His name carries weight in the game, likely to attract players in itself, and would suit this set of players perfectly.
That he apparently turned down the Real Madrid job in 2018 would also serve to plump red and white feathers. Like Simeone, a manager committed to the cause of winning. By any means.
A new Atletico?
The successor to Diego Simeone will have one of the hardest jobs in world football. It will be impossible not to compare their work to their predecessor, right down to their personality and touchline aura.
The club needs to work out what it wants to be. A ‘super-club’ pushing for the highest honours at whatever cost, but with greater consistency, should choose Allegri.
If it wants to improve its game aesthetic, and develop a new identity more associated with attacking football (perhaps a more endearing one to the neutral), then Gallardo could be the man.
However if the traditions outlined by Simeone are to be continued, and the club is to stick by its roots as the rarely favoured underdog, Bordalás is the perfect Simeone successor.
Whether Atletico use the same creativity they employed to bring El Cholo to Madrid, or bank on the experience and reliability of Allegri, a new chapter will look very different to the ones that came before it.
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