“If Simeone wanted to coach the team from an Antarctic penguin research station, the players would still feel his influence.”
Atletico Madrid’s fiery Argentinian manager, Diego Simeone, has been a fixture in his glass box since the start of this season’s campaign.
Simeone was banned for eight matches after being ejected in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup match back in August. He was given four games for doing something which we shall call ‘tapping the back of the linesman’s head’, two games for protesting the decision, one game for giving sassy applause at his sending-off, and one game for remaining in the stands instead of leaving the stadium, where he yelled and paced like a cat who had spotted a mole.
Four of the banned matches were for La Liga games and four carry to the next two Supercopa matches; he is also serving one Champions league match ban for prior naughtiness during the Champions League final in Lisbon last May.
Atletico Madrid’s win over Almería on Wednesday was the last of Simeone’s four-match La Liga touchline suspension. Perhaps poetically, the Argentine left visible whitish hand-prints where he had pounded the glass, as his squad fought to maintain its 1-0 lead – mementos of his imprisonment.
So how much has the suspension affected the team and its performance?
The short answer is that they have enjoyed a solid start; they are currently lying in third place in La Liga, behind Barcelona and Sevilla, despite starting the season unbeaten.
In every televised match during the ban, you could hear commentators muse over whether the players are suffering for the lack of Simeone’s Presence. To be sure, Simeone is a larger-than-life figure on the sidelines. But this means he’s present no matter where they put him—and nobody puts Cholo in the corner.
I rather think that if Simeone wanted to coach the team from an Antarctic penguin research station, the players would still feel his influence.
Some call Simeone hard, physical, and aggressive — and say his team plays this way, too. Tim Collins went as far as to claim that, “Whereas Barcelona are majestic and Real Madrid are explosive, Simeone’s men engage in football’s equivalent of trench warfare, slugging it out in an almost brutal fashion while embodying their manager’s ferocity.”
I don’t buy that Atletico are brutal. There’s so much more to Atleti’s physicality – it’s a raw, all-in feel, certainly, but it isn’t angry. Don’t confuse ‘working class team’ or ‘physical’ with ‘thuggish’. Atletico Madrid possesses an exquisite humility that every fan has seen in every match.
It is also clear every time one of the players speaks that the squad isn’t just loyal to its coach, but they’re believers in him.
When Barcelona came knocking for Koke this summer, it was reported that Koke explained, “This is my home, where I feel wanted and the club didn’t need to sell. How was I going to leave at the best time for Atletico? I’m just another player at Atletico, a player who gives everything for his team and does what Simeone asks. I’m not the best or the flagship, the banner.
“The most important thing to me is to make a better Atletico and be a team player, which is ultimately what matters.”
At a press conference on Monday, Joao Miranda also talked about teamwork. “When we defend, we all defend and we all need to attack and try to help. We’re working to make a stronger team. It’s a matter of time”.
The Calderón is not a place of egos and me-me-me attitudes; Atleti leaves that to their cousins across the city.
But back to the question—has the team suffered for the lack of Simeone urging them on from the touchline?
No doubt the sight of his black suit pacing along the edge of the pitch is a reassurance, but Simeone’s squad has not been left to its own devices. I have every confidence he’s said to them, ‘Don’t even think I’m not watching you for one moment’. They know he is.
It was even reported that had Simeone stated that he would still be communicating with his assistant coach, Germán Burgos, during his ban.
The Argentine stated, “We’ll try to find the best way to communicate.”
This sounds casual, but there’s no way Simeone and Burgos weren’t in complete and total agreement as to how to manage the team.
“Germán has the capacity and confidence; it gives me peace of mind that we understand football in the same way. He will sit on the bench and I will see it from another place.”
And anyway, the larger-than-life presence of Burgos during the suspensions has been quite commanding.
Burgos—cancer survivor, Argentinian international, actual rock star, Google Glass-pioneer, and ripper-offer of Jose Mourinho’s head (well, he only suggested it) – is no stranger to suspensions himself. At the last league derby against Real in March 2014, Burgos detonated at the referee after Diego Costa was denied a penalty, earning himself a three-game touchline ban.
Oh, it’s such fun, isn’t it?
Not really. Explosive reactions aren’t a picnic for the coach, squad, fans, or club (Atleti has been fined a considerable cash for its coach’s suspensions). We all want to keep our emotions in check, but sport is passionate. It should be passionate.
We want our players, who have given everything in their bodies and minds (we hope) in the primes of their lives to get where they are, to give everything they have got. We want our coaches to be omnipresent and wise, we want them machinating and ever-calculating of every player against every team, all the time. We also want our managers to be so invested into the club and the players that they are willing to face ejection and fines for fighting for the players in the same way that they fight for him. We want a sense of fully-immersed physical play. We love it.
The coaches do have a responsibility, to be sure, to set the right example and act like the professionals they are on a world stage. I’m not saying they don’t, I’m saying they do—with passion.
Nobody denies that Cholo has reinvigorated a club that has historically sagged, always played second fiddle in Madrid, and had too few opportunities to sing about being ‘campiones’. Even though the Atleti squad that won last season’s La Liga title is not the same— Diego Costa, David Villa and Filipe Luis are all gone – this season’s squad is still solid, full of heart, and humble. And it’s on track to defend its title.
While there is work to do yet, you get the sense in every press conference that training is tightly run and the players want to be there, want to work, want to succeed—and that they want to do it for Simeone.
No one knows how long Atleti have with Simeone before he’s lured away to other pastures—Argentina will certainly be sniffing around before long. But Atleti fans, like myself, hope that for as long as we have him, we continue the culture of community, humility, and sheer determination. When Cholo is gone, we hope that the changes that he has brought to Atletico are permanent. Suspensions don’t alter that.