As the final whistle blew on Atletico Madrid’s 6-0 Champions League Group E victory against Celtic at the Estadio Metropolitano on Tuesday evening, Diego Simeone bounded immediately down the tunnel to the dressing rooms.
Just moments earlier, the coach had been acknowledging the home crowd with a wave as chants of ‘Ole Ole Ole Cholo Simeone’ rang around the stadium.
It was a fun night for everyone in rojblanco. Goals from Antoine Griezmann (two), Alvaro Morata (two), Samuel Lino and Saul Niguez sealed Atletico’s 16th straight home win since February. It was the club’s biggest European Cup (Champions League) victory since beating Dublin side Drumcondra 8-0 in 1958 and put them clear at the top of their group, with the feeling that the team and their coach have clicked together again.
The contrast with 12 months ago is striking.
Atletico won just one of their first five home La Liga games of 2022-23, the worst start of Simeone’s 11 seasons in charge. They then finished bottom of a Champions League group featuring FC Porto, Bayer Leverkusen and Club Bruges. It was the first time under Simeone’s reign that Atletico failed to qualify for some kind of European football after the winter break.
Around the club, there was a lot of talk of “wear and tear and exhaustion”, with many either fearing or hoping that the Argentinian’s record spell as Atletico coach (in terms of both length and titles won) was soon coming to an end.
Simeone’s hero status was under pressure, with some of his decisions being whistled by an upset Metropolitano crowd, especially what some fans thought was unfair treatment of the team’s most naturally talented player, Joao Felix.
Sidelining the record signing — he cost €126million (£109.6m; $134.6m) in 2019 — contributed to the relationship between coach and club hierarchy deteriorating to the point where chief executive Miguel Angel Gil Marin started talking tentatively about the “post-Simeone era”, despite the manager’s contract running until summer 2024.
Looking back now, a clear turning point came in January, when Joao Felix was sent on loan to Chelsea. Griezmann took over the reins of the team, and they started to motor through the last four months of last season, easily clinching third spot in La Liga and a Champions League return.
That turnaround allowed Simeone to strongly insist in the summer that Joao Felix was not coming back into his plans, which Gil Marin had to accept — although the coach did not get everything he wanted in the transfer window, especially not the commanding central midfielder that the team could do with.
The positive vibes around Atletico have continued through the first months of 2023-24. September’s 3-1 ‘derbi’ win over Real Madrid was a huge moment — the first big victory over their neighbours since they moved to the Metropolitano. It was also played out in front of the biggest-ever attendance at the stadium, their home since September 2017.
The crowd against Celtic on Tuesday night included over 3,000 visiting fans, who mostly knew the game was over as a contest after Daizen Maeda’s red card with the Scottish side already 1-0 down. Even before Griezmann and Morata took advantage of the extra spaces, Simeone’s side had shown that they play a lot of good football these days. The warrior ethos of the 2013-14 La Liga-winning team led by Diego Godin and Gabi has evolved into a more modern, possession-based style of play, at least in most games.
That this was goalkeeper Jan Oblak’s first clean sheet at home all season shows Atletico are no longer so rock solid at the back. Former Borussia Dortmund midfielder Axel Witsel is now a fixture as a ball-player in the back three, while homegrown 23-year-old Rodrigo Riquelme is a number 10 fielded at left wing-back.
A new lightness of touch in man management has also seen Simeone rebuild relationships with Morata and Saul, who both left on loan in past seasons after falling out of favour but have been among the best performers in 2023-24.
“We look for the best way to keep improving, keep competing, and above all reinventing ourselves because life is about that, always reinventing yourself,” Simeone said recently.
The 53-year-old has at times weighed up the merits of a change himself during the last decade. He has had offers from teams including Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, and took English classes at one point but found learning the language challenging. He has sometimes spoken hypothetically about taking charge of his former Serie A clubs Inter Milan or Lazio. But he has always known his success at Atletico has been driven by a deep emotional connection with their players and fans.
Another reason to stay at Atletico was Simeone becoming world football’s best-paid coach after his fifth and most recent contract was signed following their last La Liga title in 2020-21. That was also another sign of how Atletico have joined the elite during his management. When he arrived in December 2011, they had played just three seasons in either the Champions League or European Cup in the previous three decades (1996-97, 2008-09 and 2009-10).
Atletico’s next Champions League group game at Feyenoord on November 28 will be Simeone’s 100th in charge in the competition. Victory would confirm their place in the last 16 with a match to spare. Again, it is all so different from last year, when Gil Marin was suggesting publicly that all good things come to an end and that he always believed Luis Enrique would make an excellent Atletico coach. Instead, just this week, the club’s most powerful figure told Spanish TV: “It’s not closed yet but, God willing, we’ll have three more years together.”
This all came a few days after Natalia Simeone, El Cholo’s agent and sister, met with Gil Marin at the Metropolitano. The final details of a new deal are still to be agreed, including whether it will run to June 2026 or 2027, but it will see his overall wage fall at least slightly from its current €23million a year, among the highest in football management.
Last weekend’s 2-1 La Liga defeat away at strugglers Las Palmas was a reminder that nothing is ever easy at Atletico. They now sit fourth in the Spanish table, six points behind surprise leaders Girona. There has also been drama through their European campaign, with Lazio goalkeeper Ivan Provedel heading an unlikely 95th-minute equaliser in their first group game. A third La Liga title of his time as coach would be great. A first Champions League in the club’s history remains the dream.
Previously, Simeone’s tendency to run down the tunnel at full time has provoked the ire of some opposition coaches and pundits (especially in the UK). He has changed that behaviour on occasion this season, staying behind after some games (like the derbi) to soak up the positive atmosphere as his players acknowledge the support of the fans.
“This year, I am staying to enjoy it a little bit more,” Simeone grinned after Griezmann’s late winner in the 2-1 La Liga win over Real Sociedad a few weeks ago. There will be more smiles when Simeone’s new contract is announced, perhaps during the upcoming international break.
(Top photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images)