Photography by Sergio Cueto

Diego Simeone

Atlético Madrid, 2011–

Over the past decade, Diego Simeone has become recognised as one of the world’s finest managers. Since his appointment by Atlético Madrid in 2011, he has brought an almost unrecognisable sense of stability to what had long been one of Spain’s least stable clubs, transforming them into a permanent rival to Barcelona and Real Madrid. Since his return to the Spanish capital – he was once also an influential player at the club – he has inspired them to two Europa League titles, two European Super Cups, a Spanish Super Cup, a Copa del Rey, La Liga, and a similarly unlikely Champions League final.

He has also continued to improve a team that has experienced the departures of Sergio Agüero, Diego Costa, Antoine Griezmann, Thibaut Courtois, Arda Turan and Diego Godín, and overseen the admirable recruitment that led to the arrivals of João Felix and Jan Oblak, among others. Perhaps most impressive of all, however, is the consistency they continue to demonstrate in their tactical approach and their level of performance. Simeone’s team is as organised as it is clinical and resilient, and continues to benefit from a lengthy – by the standards of the modern era – managerial reign.

Playing style
Simeone favours organising his team into a 4-4-2 formation (below) with which his players attempt to dominate matches by occupying spaces, instead of prioritising lengthy periods of possession. Their sense of organisation is built on their distance from their goal, and the distances they would ideally have between their structure and that of their opponents; that structure not only places less importance on whether or not they have possession, but also remains consistent whether they are attacking or defending, ultimately contributing to their resilience.

They take few risks during build-up phases – Simeone’s belief is that the potential consequences involved in taking a risk in the defensive third outweighs the potential reward – and therefore instead become more expansive in more advanced territory. Oblak, their commanding goalkeeper, is most regularly instructed to play directly to their advanced full-backs, or to Saúl Ñíguez, when an increasingly common pattern witnessed elsewhere involves a goalkeeper playing possession to the central defenders in front of him.

If they are confronted with a high press, and the passing lines to their central defenders and full-backs are blocked, Saúl becomes Oblak’s preferred target from within their 4-4-2. The midfielder drifts to the left to advance beyond midfield and then looks to use his aerial strength against his opposing right-back. A further option involves playing directly to one of their forwards, in an attempt to win the second ball in midfield.

Should they succeed in doing so, Atlético attempt to spread possession from side to side, and at a high tempo. Simeone therefore demands that their that full-backs provide width by positioning themselves in particularly advanced territory – beyond even their wide midfielders or Ángel Correa, when the Argentinian is selected as part of their front two.

Further teammates encourage that width by positioning themselves between the opposing central defender and full-back; if the free man – often Félix, Koke or Correa – is successfully found, they often have the time and space to turn and progress the attack. It is at that point that those closest to the ball move into more central positions, and that those already wide – the full-backs, and often Saúl – attack the spaces that exist out there.

Should their attempts to adopt those positions not succeed, through their opponents negating the relevant spaces and movements, Atlético’s strikers respond by running into spaces behind the opposing defence to force those defenders to adopt new positions and to undermine the distances that exists between them, making them more vulnerable. Correa’s awareness and understanding of how to use movements to lose his markers contributes to making Simeone valuing him to the extent he does. The forward is consistently ready to make diagonal runs (below) from a wider position to a more central one, often in an attempt to attack a rival’s blind side, forcing the defending full-back to defend on their weaker side, and leaving central defenders at risk. 

Pressing and defending
Atlético are comfortable using a variety of defensive approaches; they have been seen using high, medium and low blocks; the latter, particularly, when they are attempting to defend a lead. When they are applying a high press (below), they most commonly remain in the 4-4-2 from which their forwards press the opposing central defenders, activating further lines of pressure from their advanced midfielders, and their defenders. Those midfielders cover significant spaces; their defenders attempt to reduce the spaces between defence and midfield, ultimately to disrupt any sense of continuity their opponents may otherwise develop.

An alternative approach to their high press involves them structuring their defensive unit into two lines. The first comprises of their two forwards and attacking midfielders; the second is built on their traditional defensive line and Saúl, in an attempt to create a numerical advantage in the defensive third.

Atlético’s ability to defend crosses is also a significant feature of Simeone’s approach. Showing a particularly high level of concentration, and faced with the many crosses their defensive structure often invites, their central defenders and midfielders quickly adopt positions that make those crosses easier to defend.

Even during the 2019/20 season that has involved, by his standards, Simeone experimenting, Atlético remain particularly solid from front to back. His squad also continues to perform like one convinced and committed to its manager’s methods, making it increasingly likely he will soon reach a decade in his position.

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