Tuesday’s Champions League last-16 first-leg match will be the sixth time that Diego Simeone has managed Atletico Madrid against Chelsea.
During his nine years at the club, the longest of any Atletico coach, Chelsea appointed eight different coaches.
And while Los Colchoneros is now thriving again, holding top of La Liga even after Saturday’s surprise defeat by Levante, Simeone had just 12 months ago been whistled by large swathes of the Wanda Metropolitano crowd, with Atlété stumbling 0-0 with a draw and defeating Leganes Saheb. Nineteenth place,
Known for building a grit and resilient team, Simeone has revitalized Atleti with a new era of open and offensive football based on tactical adjustments and player role shifts, rather than a classic modern transfer window.
Indeed, several of Simeone’s top aides sought new pastures with the departure of Antoine Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez, Rodry, Felipe Luis, Diego Godin and Juanfran in the summer of 2019, followed by sales of Thomas Partey and Alvaro Morata last summer.
So how did Simeone reinvent Atlético and with him, his management style?
Overhaul of configuration
For the vast majority of Simeone’s reigns, he remained wedded to the 4-4-2 base formation, which is characterized by defensive discipline and depriving the opponent of space between their combined lines.
This meant that the attackers were relied upon to provide the attacking threat.
In early November, after a disappointing draw against Huesca, Villarreal and Lokomotiv Moscow, Simeone made a bold decision with three defenders in 3-5-2 or 3-4-3.
The immediate result was a landslide 4-0 victory over Cádiz followed by a victory over Barcelona.
Atletico’s record with this tactical setup was impressive – 18 games, 13 wins, three draws – and he has come up with more goals, with 45 goals in La Liga this season compared to 51 goals throughout last season.
Three central defenders have also seen a change to an increase in playing patience – Atletico’s possession averaged 48.9% in La Liga last season, but 52.4% this season.
In Mario Hermoso, who plays the left-back on the left, they have a very comfortable defender who plays the ball, who often looks to pass through the lines and has a wider range of passes, often switching play to the right side.
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Same players, new posts
Simeone’s old 4-4-2 style required the wingers and fullbacks to remain tuned in defense, but the wing back in his new system are now free to travel forward.
At left-back, fast-paced Belgian Yannick Carrasco starred in his second spell at the club, while Kieran Trippier on the right was able to show off his strong cross ability (even his betting stop).
Simeone often pairs this broad threat with “Number Eight” in midfield in a 3-5-2 variation of his system.
Thomas Lemar had spent two unremarkable seasons in the Spanish capital, practicing his left-wing trade, leading to suggestions Atletico were looking to sell the French player last summer.
Now, popping up in more middle areas as a left-sided eight (or sometimes as a number 10), it has changed its fortunes.
His domination of tight spaces, speed and dribbling in this new role effectively provided Atletico with a fresh look for the midfielder, the one who can manipulate space in favor of the progressive wings.
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But perhaps the most interesting transformation Simeone made was the role of Marcos Llorente who, after being developed in Real Madrid’s youth team as a defensive midfielder, failed to assert himself in his natural position after crossing the division within the city in a £ 1m move. 27 million in June 2019.
It wasn’t until the Champions League last-16 second leg against Liverpool when a completely different kind of player was unleashed, with Llorente being replaced by his partner Joao Felix as a striker.
The change was spectacular as Llorente scored a brace to help oust the European champions.
The Spaniard went on to score an impressive 26 goals and 34 assists since that night at Anfield, often appearing in more attacking positions such as number eight on the right side (on the other side of Lemar), second striker or more recently seconded at back for Arrested and injured Trippier Sime Vrsaljko.
Life in Suarez after and the man who is £ 100 million
All this benefited the evergreen Luis Suarez.
After laying off Barcelona in the summer, the Uruguayan showed his former employers he remains as prolific as ever, scoring 16 goals in 18 La Liga matches.
The 34-year-old added a clinical advantage to playing Atleti, exceeding his expected number of goals in La Liga by 4.81, meaning that he scored five more goals than expected from his chances.
In contrast, Diego Costa and Morata underperformed 1.85 and 2.98 goals respectively last season.
Likewise, Joao Felix, a player who previously failed to meet expectations of a £ 100m transfer from Benfica in the summer of 2019, is starting to thrive.
Having started only 28 games in all competitions last season, due to injuries and conservatism, the term has gained more regular playing time in the second lead (19 starts) and has already surpassed his common goals and made a tally of the past. Season 14 compared to 12.
The Portuguese showed speed in late defenses and heavy passes to create chances, combined with hunter’s instinct, with eight of his nine goals this season coming from 12 yards or closer.
After defensive mischief?
Interestingly, Atletico still maintains their infamous defensive resilience, despite their overall offensive play style.
They conceded only 16 goals in 23 league games, achieving 0.69 goals per match compared to 0.71 last season.
Simeone ensures that the three center backs have a balance; When a wing back flies forward, the other stays in a more disciplined position.
Simeone did not hesitate to sit deeper when advancing, with defensive midfielders Lucas Torreira, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Hector Herrera participating in 25 alternate league matches between them this season, often entering the fray to help protect the advance.
Overall, Atletico are enjoying a lot better than when they ousted Liverpool in the same stage last season, and he will pose a real threat to Chelsea.