Football

If Diego Simeone leaves, Atletico Madrid have the perfect successor in waiting

If Diego Simeone leaves, Atletico Madrid have the perfect successor in waiting
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With eight trophies lifted and hundreds of millions of euros earned during his 11-year reign at Atletico Madrid, so long as Diego Simeone qualifies his team for the Champions League again he has undoubtedly earned the right to press the reset button and try to correct all that’s glaringly wrong with his failing team. If, on the other hand, defeat against Spain’s newly crowned champions Real Madrid in the derby on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) were to intensify a downward spiral out of LaLiga’s top four, losing Atleti their customary drip feed of massive income from Europe’s premier club competition, then the subject of the Argentina stepping aside would become an obligatory topic of conversation for those who employ him.

Although Simeone is widely reported to earn more than €20 million a season, making him the highest-paid football coach in the world, it’s not his duty to win the title or a European trophy every season. Let’s get that out of the way. But by both his own standards, and any objective measure, this has been a pallid, dispiriting, disorganized, confusing and embarrassing title defence. If Atletico finish outside the top four, something that remains entirely within their power to avoid as they sit three points above fifth-placed Real Betis, it would be the first time in any of Simeone’s full seasons since taking over.

Those who believe in status quo (backing continuity rather than the three-chord rock band) will probably argue: « Forget the difficulties of this season, look at the history of success. » They’ll add, complacently: « Don’t doubt Simeone, it’ll all come right in the end! »

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I don’t believe that’s good enough logic, though, nor does it reflect what we’ve seen with crystal clarity across the bulk of the past 10 months. The methods of Atleti’s fitness coach, Oscar Ortega, appear not only to have been superseded by the brutal demands of modern elite football, but I believe they are also failing to convince the Rojiblanco players. Simeone has not known either via man-management motivation or by strategic/tactical reworking, how to get the best out of his squad. Nor does he know which formation, something he’ll often alter a couple of times within a game (and several times within a month), is the best one to maximize the potential of his talented personnel.

On several occasions this season his most important players have talked about the problems they’re facing. The common theme is that all of them know there are serious elements missing, that they have lacked personality, that they have consistently shot themselves in the foot by only playing intensely for short periods in matches and often when Atletico already trail or are down a man .

The key characters in this parade of « Houston, we have a problem » postgame interviews include Jan Oblak and Jose Gimenez. Joao Felix saved his criticisms for an interview with a talented Irish journalist and was promptly dropped for suggesting that he knew what the central problem was. He was then reinstated when Simeone belatedly realized that the 22-year-old had seen things far more clearly than he had and that it was time to drop Luis Suarez.

Although the season isn’t yet finished, Simeone is presenting the worst key stats of his entire Atleti reign, something that would be exacerbated if they finish fifth.

Succession, when we are talking about a football dynasty, is a deeply thorny issue. Prime examples include how Liverpool handled the decline and disappearance of their « Boot Room » management team (30 years without winning the title in England), Arsenal’s tortuous attempts to restore greatness post-Arsene Wenger and, of course, the calamitous mess into which Manchester United have descended after the retirement of their greatest manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Whenever either Simeone chooses to pursue a spell in Serie A — with Inter Milan or Lazio, one would imagine — or Atletico approach him and say, « Thanks for the memories, it’s been great, but…, » that’s the time when choosing the correct strategy for what comes next will be a vexatious, thankless task. However, there may very well be a vastly tempting, persuasive solution about to present itself.

Last weekend, Athletic Club took Atleti to the cleaners. The final scoreline was only 2-0, but it could have been a distinctly more humiliating experience for the outgoing champions. All the stats about running, pressing, sprinting and transition play were damningly in Athletic’s favor. Atlético were made to look drained, tired, flat.

In blunt terms, Athletic did to Atleti what Atleti — for the majority of their campaigns under Simeone — did to their domestic and European rivals. The architect? Marcelino Garcia Toral.

During his 16 months in charge at San Mames, this intense, driven, super competitive coach — whose skills easily stand comparison with those of Unai Emery, Julen Lopetegui or Rafa Benitez — won Athletic only their second trophy in 37 years, last year’s Supercopa Espana, took them to another two Copa del Rey finals and has them nibbling at the last-chance saloon of European football this season. These achievements pair with him promoting Racing Santander and taking them into Europe, his excellent campaign in bringing Villarreal straight back to the top division after their 2012 relegation before taking them to a Europa League semifinal, plus winning Valencia the Copa del Rey in that thrilling 2019 final victory over Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona.

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The thing about Athletic is that they remain a presidentially run club. Elections for the new leader are going to take place this summer. Thus far, there’s not a whole heap of support for retaining Marcelino from those candidates standing to replace the incumbent, Aitor Elizegi.

You can understand the phenomenon, even if you disagree with it. Both to attract the voters with something shiny and new (not an unusual tactic in any political power game) and to have the personal feeling of appointing my guy who’s beholden to the candidate, it’s commonplace during presidential elections that there will be a parade of potential coaching options offered up. In this instance, it’s almost irrespective of how Marcelino (not a Basque, crucially) is doing.

Some around the election campaign dream of Marcelo Bielsa — out of work after his dismissal from Leeds United — returning to the club that he took to the 2012 Europa League final in Bucharest (ironically against Simeone’s Atletico, five months after the latter’s arrival) . The blindingly obvious candidate for any new San Mames president to repatriate, though, is Andoni Iraola.

The 39-year-old Basque-born Rayo Vallecano coach is patently talented, and must obviously be considered unlikely to continue working under Rayo’s unimpressive and much-disliked president Martin Presa for the long, or even medium term. It’s a racing certainty that were Athletic to call Iraola home, he’d accept with glee. It’s an even stronger certainty that he’d be hailed by the Athletic fan base as a conquering hero, perhaps even a Basque messiah. Iraola is one of those guys, more than 500 competitive matches at right-back and a handful of finals for Los Leones, who’s regarded as the heart and soul of the club and its ethos. He is in tune with the fan base, and adored by them, too.

All of this is a scenario that would, pretty remarkably, leave Marcelino at a loose end.

If Simeone does his usual and gets Atletico into the top four, thus guaranteeing around €70m from next season’s Champions League (with much more available for progress to the last four or another final), then his record has earned him the right to choose whether he continues or refreshes via a sabbatical and perhaps a couple of seasons elsewhere. If, however, Atleti, and perhaps even their coach, reach the conclusion that it’s a useful, sensible time for a break from one another, if they decide that some of Simeone’s ideas, rather than having passed a sell-by date, have started to bounce off the players rather than embed themselves, then Marcelino paints as a very, very acceptable replacement.

This isn’t an argument for Simeone being removed — far from it. This has been a tough year for him personally.

At age 52, he’s once again the parent of a young kid with his new partner. The Atleti boss sadly lost his much loved, highly influential dad just a few weeks ago. It may well be that not only does he steer Los Rojiblancos into the top four, he pauses, reflects, refreshes and comes back roaringly full of fight next season.

But if the worst happens and Atleti flop out of the top four, then Marcelino is available, free in the summer market. It would only be the biased, the naive wouldn’t stop and think: « Isn’t he the perfect replacement for Simeone? »

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