Diego Simeone. El Cholo. There’s magic in the name – it conjures images of arms waving frantically up and down the sideline, urging the Vicente Calderón crowd to keep cheering, embracing Juanfran and Gabi and Diego Godín and all the other Atlético de Madrid cult figures who have gained prominence since the Argentine’s arrival back in 2011. Is there a bigger, more extravagant or influential coaching personality in today’s game? One that isn’t currently unemployed? (Yes, I’m looking at you “Special One.”) I’m inclined to say no.
Something about Simeone mesmerizes me; it makes me desperate to watch his crazy antics, and leaves me laughing when I’m not at all surprised to hear that he’s received a three-match touchline ban for telling a ball boy to throw a ball onto the pitch to stop a dangerous Málaga counterattack last weekend. Watching his teams compete puts me in touch with my purest fútbol passion, this coming from a diehard madridista. The total, unwavering commitment. The unrelenting effort. The simplicity and adherence to the mission. The gusty AF defense. It makes me feel some kinda way about actually enjoying Simeone’s presence on the sideline.
In a fantastic feature ahead of Atleti’s semifinal matchup against Bayern Munich this afternoon, Jonathan Wilson highlights the formative years behind Cholo’s colchonero renaissance.
Before making a move to Atleti – where he would go on to play from 1994 to 1997 – Simeone started his youth career at Buenos Aires-based Vélez, where he worked under the influential Victorio Spinetto, the man largely charged with inventing “anti-fútbol in Argentina.” Character, guts, grit, fibra. It’s thanks to Spinetto that we yell Cholo at the Calderón; the coach dubbed Diego “Cholo” due to his similarities with tenacious Vélez and Boca Junior defender Carmelo “Cholo” Simeone (no relation).
“If he doesn’t have fibra, he cannot become a great,” Spinetto once said. “You know which are the most generous players on the pitch? Those who are men in the full sense of sacrifice. Together with their talent they give everything that they have inside…Because they have shame and they don’t like to leave the field defeated.”
Simeone’s first foray into putting this plan into action was with Estudiantes. Upon taking over in 2006, he led the team to its first Apertura win in 23 years. They conceded a mere 12 goals in 19 games in the process. Surprised? Neither are we.
I was at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on that fateful day, when Simeone’s side beat Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final in May of 2013, their first win against their city rivals in 26 games. It was the start of something special. In May of the following year, Atleti found itself in need of a tie or win against Barcelona in order to claim the league title. And they did it, for the first time in 18 years. They made it to the Champions League final too, and were seconds away from winning it in regular time if it hadn’t been for Sergio Ramos (Minuto 93!).
This season, the Cholo-coached team boasts an unbelievable 0.5 goals conceded per game average, numbers that better even Pep Guardiola’s Bayern boys. They’ve compiled 21 clean sheets in La Liga action, putting them on course for second-best ever behind Deportivo de la Coruña’s best ever mark from 1993-94.
Simply put, they’re doing it their way: defending deep, committing centrally, and frustrating the hell out of any and every opponent they face. Omar Chaudhuri of 21st Club recently pointed out that “While Atlético are exceptional at defending their area, this season there have been subtle tweaks. The number of attacking and middle regains of possession has increased from 23.5 per game to 29.2, which indicates a more varied pressing game; interceptions are up 32 percent and tackles 8 percent. Their narrow midfield, meanwhile, not only protects the back four but allows Felipe Luís and Juanfran to race down the flanks.”
He also focused on what he calls “another misconception:” the fact that Cholo’s teams are “mirror-images of Simeone the player. Sure, there are similarities in the way they fight for every ball in every match. But while Simeone the footballer had more than a touch of the Artful Dodger about him, his teams are not especially dirty.”
Rival fans will likely disagree, but hard tackles are accompanied by smart tactics. There’s no denying it; they only catch opponents offsides 0.7 times per match, and heat maps show their ability to squeeze the center of the field and dominate balls in the air, leaving little to no hope for their foes.
This one’s for you, Cholo, the man of my post-Wenger era Arsenal dreams. You can count me amongst the ranks of people enamored by your chaotic coaching antics, even if I often despise your colchonero crew. Nos vemos en la final.