The genius of Simeone's Atletico Madrid explained

In less than three years, Diego Simeone led Atletico Madrid from 10th in Spain's top flight to a Europa League trophy, Copa Del Rey success, UEFA Super Cup glory, a La Liga title and was within two minutes of winning the UEFA Champions League. SBS commentator and analyst Michael Bridges recently visited the club to see Simeone's revolution up close.


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Dressed in an all-black suit, hair slicked back, Simeone's sideline look often gets compared to a gangster, which is appropriate when he makes players an offer they cannot refuse. 

“I always ask my players, what kind of season do you prefer? One where you play all the matches but you finish lower on the table and out of all major competitions or do you prefer to play 20 matches out of a total of 38, score eight goals, and the team is crowned a champion? Simeone told La Nacion recently.

"It never fails. They always choose the second option.

"Even though it is repetitive to say it, no individual is more important than the team."

2014 La Liga winners

It's a healthy and necessary mantra to have. During his time in charge he has consistently lost his best players - Arda Turan, Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois, Falcao, Felipe Luis and Toby Alderweireld all thrived under Simeone before moving on. 

Season after season he has had to re-invent a team that continually defies the expectations of the so called experts. 

On a recently trip to Madrid, Bridges got a look at a team that went from not beating local rivals Real Madrid in 14 years, to one that has now lost only once in their past 10 against the world's richest club. 

"Atletico has the feel of a family club were everyone is on the same page and understands the message Simeone is spreading," Bridges said

"Individuals are not welcome as no player is bigger then the club which is reflected by the way Atletico play as a united team with and without the ball.

"Every player we met was happy to talk and was very respectful, but one thing that stood out to me was every player talked about the teams work rate and how every players looks out for each other and knows each others roles and responsibilities."

"This is something that has been drilled into the players by Simeone and his staff. This was evident in both the training sessions and the match.

"Simeone would be encouraging and demanding more from the players while his organisation from the side line was amazing to witness, this can only be described as 'the conductor of a orchestra'."   

Simeone is as committed to his ideals as he is tactically flexible, as he explained to La Nacion.

"When I hear other coaches say that Atletico has a certain style of play, that makes me happy,"  

"It is not easy to have a style. It can mean having various functions - we can play a 4-4-2, 4-3-3 for 20 minutes and then vary that to a 4-5-1 with more defence on the sides or finish with five in the back. But our style of play is absolutely notable, even though the form varies."

Eibar manager José Luis Mendilibar said of Atleti, "They’re a big team that runs like a small one.

Celta Vigo's Iago Aspas described Rojiblancos as a team "that doesn't let you play".

This morning, Atleti as a team ran 12 kilometres more than Barcelona (114-102).

When Atleti beat Real Madrid 1-0 in the Santiago Bernabeu two months ago they ran 11 kilometres more than their opponents. This was after just returning to Madrid two days earlier after taking on PSV Eindhoven in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie. 

But don't let the collective strength fool you, Atletico's squad does contain brilliant individuals.

Antoine Griezman is the best player in Spain not playing for the big two, scoring 29 goals and five assists this season.

Meanwhile, Diego Godin is arguably the best centre-back in the world this season. Atleti's defence have only conceded 21 goals in 42 La Liga and Champions League matches this season. 

After watching the training sessions up close Bridges explained how they remain so disciplined.

"I was very surprised to see the team doing a closing down session without a ball, something that has been drilled into the coaches in Australia on the FFA coaching courses," he said.

"The players in their specific positions and the assistant coach with a ball at his feet. Once the coach moved the ball to the left the whole team shuffled across the field at pace then they would re-group to their initial positions before the coach would move into a different positions and the team had to react to the coaches movement."

"I also witnessed this at all age groups throughout the day as they want all players to understand the formation with and without the ball so if any progress into reserves or first team the transition is simple as all teams play the same way.

"While I was sat in the highest seat at the Calderon the match looked like a Subbuteo pitch, but it was great to see the whole team shape working like poetry in motion when they wanted to win the ball back and counter attack at pace.

"Atletico would deny space and block passing lanes while closing down like a pack of wolves and condensing the pitch and making it small and they once the ball was won they would make the pitch as big as possible by player spreading high and wide and trying to exploit the space in behind the opposition, if the counter-attack was not on they would keep possession and wait for the next opportunity to arise. 

"Atletico players movement and ball speed was sublime but it was the man Simeone on the sideline conducting everything and the players looked at him like an obedient dog looks at its owner, waiting for the next instruction.

Bridges watched the 3-0 La Liga win over Deportivo La Coruna at the weekend and described the atmosphere inside the 55,000-seat Vicente Calderon Stadium.

"The Calderon was a fortress, which would be horrifying for any opposing team," he said.

"Atletico controlled the match with the ball and played the game at their pace turning it on when needed and slowing the play down with good ball possession when they need to get their breath back from all the hard work in winning it back."

In mid 2011 you would be laughed at for saying Atletico could win the Champions League in the next five years.

In 2014 they knocked out Lionel Messi's Barcelona on the way to the final. In 2015 they were knocked out by Real Madrid in the quarter-finals. Now they're into the semi-finals after having knocked out Barcelona - a team that many thought were the best in the world just a few weeks ago. Lessons have been learned, a squad has blossomed, this could be their year.

This is a club that continues to grow under Simeone's leadership. It's having an effect on all aspects of the club.

"The success and rise of this club has to be the team spirit, togetherness and unselfishness of the players who all talk about the team and not the individuals," Bridges explained.

"This was no more evident then when I met the CEO of the club for a brief moment and he asked if all the players had been respectful and done what we asked while interviewing them.

"His words echo in my head and its a fitting way to end this 'No player or employee is bigger then Atletico Madrid, bad eggs and egos kill clubs'. Take note every one."

Atletico Madrid will be in Melbourne this July for ICC presented by AUDI.

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7 min read
Published 15 March 2016 at 12:48pm
By Nick Stoll
Source: SBS