Before the season began, someone from the club put Diego Pablo Simeone on notice. “You have just won the League, it will be a difficult year”. The accurate omen, supported by the knowledge of the particular psychology of the entity by the sharp magician, contrasted with the state of optimism unleashed after the return of Antoine Griezmann and the signings of Rodrigo de Paul and Matheus Cunha. Three top-level footballers who reinforced a champion squad that had not lost troops. Simeone himself did not dare to deny the label of the best squad under him since he landed at Atlético in December 2011.
Ten and a half years later, Cholo has closed his worst season as Atletico coach. He has met the minimum goal of qualifying the team for the next Champions League, but with the best roster of players he has had in ten years he has registered his second lowest score in the League (71 points). He fell in the second round of the Cup against Real Sociedad, and in the semifinals of the Super Cup with Athletic. Only in the Champions League, with the transition to the quarterfinals, can he take his course for good. However, his image was very affected by the ultra-defensive approach against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium (1-0). In his eyes I had two options. Or play what Guardiola wanted or what he wanted. He lost by the minimum and left the tie alive, but a large part of the European press and important voices such as Arrigo Sacchi or Marco Van Basten discredited his approach. The fact that Guardiola used the word prehistory to ensure that it has always been difficult to open up a team as closed as Atlético was also contributed to eroding his image in Europe.
Simeone attributes the poor season to a question of mentality, to Trippier’s departure in December, which he tried to avoid without luck until the team played the Cup against Real, to the injuries of Savic and Giménez and to Griezmann’s relapse. And he also criticizes himself. He admits he didn’t find a way to stem the unusual defensive bleed that knocked his team out of the league contention in December. He also did not find an eleven or a stable drawing. “In the systems I got dizzy between two places (the 1-5-3-2 and the 4-4-2). I have been able to do more than I have done”, he acknowledged.
Managing a campus with such a large rooster payroll has been a problem. When Griezmann’s arrival was already an open secret, he had to deal with João Félix’s intention to leave the club. The Portuguese perceived the signing of the Frenchman as a direct attack on his status and his prominence. The leadership prevented him from escaping at the last minute to Barcelona. The imminent closing of the market played against his exit. The figure of Luis Suárez was also a sticking point. To the extent that the poor results invited the coach to return to his most genuine script, the Uruguayan striker began to disappear from the lineups. His physique was not enough to play with the most withdrawn team.
Before the bump at home with Levante (0-1), with which the team bottomed out at the beginning of February, Simeone had already warned in the Arabian Super Cup that the situation was looking bad. The team did not respond to his stimuli. He wanted to verify that the squad was with him in a private meeting with the four captains (Koke, Oblak, Savic and Giménez). The technician also perceived that some tensions with the property, mainly due to the substitutions of João Félix, had lowered internal support. The three-way conclave with Miguel Ángel and the sports director, Andrea Berta, was decisive for the team to save the year and the club’s coffers with qualification for the next Champions League, recovering, in part, defensive reliability. That Reinildo has been the man of the final stretch of the course is not trivial in a squad with so many distinguished players.
The season has caused Simeone to pronounce the word “rebuild” in recent weeks. It does not refer to a massive screening in the template, but to recover the competitive intensity with more regularity. “We have an important squad. In almost every place we have players who can generate what we want. We don’t need a lot of footballers, but we do need some to reinforce a team that needs new energy”, he explains. For the moment, only the return of Saúl and the continuity of Griezmann are the certainties.
Atlético is looking for a right-back, a midfielder – Kamara from Marseille escaped him at the last minute – and has doubts about whether to bet on a proven scorer or give Cunha stripes. Simeone thinks that Griezmann will return to his level. He attributes his bad season to the injury, when he was better, since he did not free himself from fear after the relapse. And in his head is a groundbreaking idea. If he maintains the level exhibited in the last third, next season it will be João Félix and ten more. If he decides not to force him to leave again.
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