In 1968, Jesús Gil built an apartment complex in Segovia without consulting a single architect or surveyor. He just found some cheap builders and threw the thing up, and when it came down, it killed 58 people and injured 700 more. Any sane society would bury a man like that under the jail or kick him to death in the street, but this was Franco’s Spain and Gil was a friend. The generalissimo pardoned him in 1969 and he went on to commit further crimes for three and a half more decades.
One of them was insidiously converting Atlético Madrid into a private company in 1992, which a judge deemed illegal only after the statute of limitations on the transgression had run out. Atleti was never rightfully Gil’s, but there was no one to stop him from running it every bit as recklessly as his construction business. The same year he stole the club from its supporters, Gil closed down the youth academy, claiming it was a waste of money, and the future greatest goalscorer in Spanish history, a teenaged Raúl, moved across town to Real Madrid. Atleti won a Liga and Copa double in 1996 and were relegated in 2000. That second date was around the time Gil was being hauled into court for using his mayorship in the beach town of Marbella to disappear over $440 million from the council coffers, including about $35 million in shirt sponsor fees to Atleti. The great boisterous crook burned through 44 managers and 141 player signings during his 17 years in charge of the club, and when he died in 2004, he left them debt-strapped and institutionally dysfunctional.
The Gil hangover persisted for a long while. In 2007, Fernando Torres, coming into the peak of his powers and not at all wanting to leave Atleti, was given everybody’s blessing to flee for Liverpool, because it was becoming a joke how much better he was than the rest of the squad. In 2010, Diego Forlán returned from performing World Cup heroics with Uruguay to find himself frozen out by his teammates. “Not one ball to Blondie,” was the refrain—La Rubia, the feminine noun, functioning as a gendered slur. That Atleti team finished seventh in La Liga and Forlán, Sergio Aguero, and David De Gea all left the following summer, in part because they were sick of the mediocrity and in part because the club had to sell off its best players to keep up with payments on the hundreds of millions of dollars they owed the Spanish tax authorities.
This, following a brief and ignominious managerial spell from Gregorio Manzano, is the mess Diego Simeone inherited in December of 2011. He arrived with a nomadic and only moderately successful coaching résumé, but he was brought in more for what he stood for—he was a crucial player on that Doblete-winning squad in 1996—than what he had accomplished on the bench. This is a very Atleti way of thinking, hiring a fondly remembered legend rather than a more qualified candidate, but it’s worked out splendidly, and there is definitely something to the fact that El Cholo understands the club all the way down to everything that’s screwed up about it. He’s a smart tactician, and he gets along with his players, but the most important attribute he possesses is a force of personality that keeps Atleti’s vain and craven executives in line. Jesus’s son, Miguel Angel, isn’t as flamboyantly crazy as his father, nor is president Enrique Cerezo, but they need to be bopped on the head from time to time, to keep them from directing all the club’s profits directly into their pockets.
Under Cholo’s watch, Atleti have enjoyed their most successful era. He’s built a famously impenetrable back line, bested Real Madrid and Barcelona with considerably fewer resources, won a Liga title, two Europa Leagues, a Copa del Rey, made two Champions League finals and perennially qualified for the big European tournament. This newfound stability has allowed the club to grow in a manner that was unfathomable before Simeone was brought aboard. He has ushered in what you might call Atlético Madrid’s corporate era. They used to fly into every season without a plan, and now they’re a competitive, half-competently run club with a modern stadium and a steady revenue stream. This is mostly Diego Simeone’s doing. It’s not a stretch to call him a transformative figure.
But everybody has their limitations, and Cholo has spent the last three seasons butting up against his. As a project, his Atleti peaked in 2016, when they lost to Real Madrid in the Champions League final. That was the best squad he’s coached, and one of the finest jobs he’s done in the capital, given that the season itself was hardly a smooth journey toward Europe’s summit. Though that defeat left Simeone grief-stricken and openly wondering whether he wanted to continue at Atleti, he failed to learn anything significant from it, and the team has been in decline ever since.
Throughout the clubs’ collective histories, you can count on two hands the number of seasons in which Atletico Madrid have genuinely been better than Real Madrid. 2015-16 was one of them. They had been handling their city rivals domestically for the past two years, including a 4-0 blowout at the Calderon in 2015, and their run to the Champions League final, in which they flummoxed both Barcelona and Bayern Munich, had been way more impressive than Madrid’s. Yet Atleti met the title game with extreme caution, and despite conceding an early set piece goal, played the entire first half as if they were defending a lead. After a Yannick Carrasco goal knotted the scoreline in the 79th minute, they stopped pushing forward and contented themselves with the coin flip of a penalty shootout, which of course they ended up losing.
Cholo’s error, which he’d committed more than a few times before but never in such an important match, was that he had an advantage and refused to press it due to his own parochial ideas about what his team could do. He didn’t just lack imagination; he failed to see what was right in front of him.
This is understandable enough. The Atleti squad that won La Liga in 2014 wasn’t stocked with plucky scrubs, but they were significantly underpowered compared to Real Madrid and Barcelona. They couldn’t control games against those mega-squads and had to resort to sitting deep for 10 or 15 minutes at a time before firing forward and trying to steal a goal. 2016 was the first time during Cholo’s tenure that Atleti had a wealth of fine players at their disposal, not least of all Antoine Griezmann, whom Simeone had groomed from a frisky winger at Real Sociedad into a do-it-all forward who linked midfield and attack while scoring quite a few goals of his own. If losing an eminently winnable Champions League final against the club you hate most is a considerably less than ideal way to discover that something needs to change, it is at least an impetus.
Yet Cholo has remained largely unmoved. He’s never made a genuine effort to reimagine the way the team plays. There was a brief spell, after that pivotal loss, when he tried out a fluid formation in which Yannick Carrasco often operated in a three-man forward line as opposed to along the left side of a four-man midfield. This produced some thrilling results, but it also—because this is just the way soccer works—allowed opponents more scoring opportunities than Atlético Madrid were previously used to conceding. Cholo didn’t have the stomach for it, and after a spate of November and December defeats, he ditched the new approach and went back to his rigid 4-4-2.
The soccer since that half-assed attempt at an evolution has been turgid. There are specifics worth citing—for instance, Atleti failed to make it out of the group stage of the 2017-18 Champions League primarily because they could score only one goal in two matches against Azerbaijani minnows Qarabag—but it’s something you have to watch every week in order to understand. There are many, many instances per season in which Atleti are facing opponents with markedly less talent than they have at their disposal, and infrequently does there ever appear to be an offensive plan for these matches. Players who have occupied the same pitch for years can’t get on the same page. One goal leads serve as an excuse to stop attacking altogether. The ball moves at the pace of an ambling cat, side to side, then all the way back to the goalkeeper. Griezmann drops deeper and deeper as the game wears on, playing pretty one-twos some 30 yards out of scoring range. A fullback is freed up for a cross and weakly curls it toward nobody in particular. It doesn’t really matter that the ball is poor: there’s only one red and white shirt in the penalty area anyway.
It’s galling how few ideas Atleti have in possession, as if all they do in practice is defensive drills and wind sprints. Cholo’s lineup choices are similarly uninspired. His two standbys in midfield are Koke, a positionless tweener with below average athleticism and an allergy to the forward pass, and Saul, an ebulliently skilled jack of all trades who played atrociously throughout last season. Though Koke and Saul are at times the two worst options in the entire squad, they start nearly every game. It has taken Thomas Partey two seasons of doing everything you could ask of a box-to-box midfielder to establish himself in the starting XI, and even then, he still occasionally gets dropped for a big game for reasons no one outside the locker room can divine. Santiago Arias came in from PSV in the summer of 2018 and quickly proved that he was a much more capable right back than the 34-year-old Juanfran, yet he spent the last two months of the season on the bench, a victim of Simeone’s nostalgia.
All of this at odds with the direction in which the club has been evolving overall. Atleti’s purchasing power and ability to lure world-class recruits have strengthened enormously, and yet the team still plays like they’re running out loanees and aging castoffs in attack. In concert with the oxidation of their once watertight back four, this has left them mired in miserable stasis: they insist upon a defensive approach that’s no longer viable. They have been figured out, great players like Diego Godín and Filipe Luis have limped past their primes, and fresh talents more suited to playing with the ball than chasing after it have withered on the vine.
A list of forwards and creative midfielders who have played worse at Atleti than they did at their previous clubs: Nico Gaitán, Kevin Gameiro, Luciano Vietto, Vitolo, Thomas Lemar, Jackson Martinez, Alessio Cerci, Gelson Martins, and Diego Costa (upon his return from Chelsea). Some were sporting department boners and others were bothered by persistent injuries, but it’s undeniable that Atleti’s track record with attacking players has been wretched over the past handful of seasons.
Cholo seems to wish they were all like Raúl García, a physical central midfielder who couldn’t pass and nearly got run out of the club in his mid-20s for not being able to hack it even in underperforming Atleti sides. Cholo turned García into useful Atleti player by deploying him as a wide target man who bullied smaller fullbacks and gave the team a press-breaking aerial outlet. It was an ingenious reinvention of a guy with smarts and toughness but not much in the way of subtle skill. Beyond Griezmann, Cholo has never done this sort of thing for a technically gifted player. He teaches them to cover the flank—which Garcia was excellent at—and then who knows what the hell else. Do creative stuff, appears to be the instruction.
The summer before this one, Atleti acquired Thomas Lemar for a club-record fee. They had already spent—and wasted—plenty of cash in the transfer market trying to find a replacement for Arda Turan, who was the main creative force during Atleti’s Liga-winning campaign. In Lemar, they identified the perfect kind of player: one who could pass and dribble through tight spaces in the final third and run at defenders on the break. He was also, Griezmann assured Simeone, a willing defender. He would help out his fullback, if not as effectively as Raul García, then with similar gusto.
That last thing is about all Lemar was able to do last season. He might as well have been playing fullback himself, with how frequently he was trapped in his own half, trying to throw his five-foot-seven frame in front of crosses, possessing neither the energy nor the mandate to run forward. His capacity for offensive invention was basically theoretical. The poor guy, who speaks only a little Spanish and surely didn’t comprehend half of what Cholo was yelling at him during games, looked a million miles out of his element.
It’s fitting that Lemar put in his worst performance of the year in the most embarrassing game of Diego Simeone’s career. Atleti were up 2-0 on aggregate against Juventus in their Champions League tie, and Lemar probably wouldn’t have even started the second leg if Thomas Partey hadn’t been suspended, but he did and was egregiously ill-suited to the team’s tactics, which were to sit as deep as possible and let Juve hit cross after cross into the penalty area for Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic. Atleti only needed to score a single goal to effectively put the tie to bed, and Lemar is the type of player who might have been able to provide a cutting pass or a run into the box to create that goal. Instead Cholo set him up to fail, and he turned the ball over again and again in his own half, trying to dribble the ball out of pressure with nobody in support as Juve midfielders bore down on him. He was hooked at the 57-minute mark, and Juve went on to win 3-0. That scoreline flattered Atleti. They were pathetic.
It’s rumored that Antoine Griezmann reached an agreement with Barcelona either right before or after this loss. That’s Griezmann’s flightiness in a nutshell, but it’s also hard to blame a player for wanting to jump ship after so many years of carrying an attack that’s only gotten worse despite all the money that’s been pumped into it. Lucas Hernandez left for Bayern Munich midseason, immediately after it was confirmed a knee injury would keep him out for the rest of the year. Rodri, who’s likely going to be the best holding midfielder in the world sooner rather than later, is set to join Manchester City this summer after only one season at Atleti. (Diego Godin and Juanfran have decided to move on too, albeit more for contractual than sporting reasons.)
After underperforming for three straight years and fighting like mad to keep hold of their best players, Atlético Madrid are finally suffering an exodus. There are replacements lined up—João Felix from Benfica, Marcos Llorente from Real Madrid, Mario Hermoso from Espanyol—and they’re good players, but they’re less polished (in Felix’s case) or less skilled (in Llorente’s case) than the players they’re filling in for. For a while now, year over year, Atleti have lined up the most promising squad they’ve ever had. 2019-20 will represent a setback. If they’re to sweeten last season’s sourness, it’s going to be because the available talent combines more harmoniously than it used to—not because there’s more of it than there used to be.
In a recent interview with Fox Sports Brazil, Diego Simeone made some noises about how new players with new skillsets might require the team to play differently than they have in the past. This is some Cholo-style revisionism. He’s already had players with new skillsets, who would have benefitted from an evolution in the way the team plays, and he’s squandered them. The board hasn’t been signing Raul García clones this whole time.
If we afford Cholo his willful ignorance and read his comments charitably, they signal that perhaps he’s finally gotten the hint and understands that the team hasn’t reached its full potential in part due to his approach, that he too sees a rich and well-resourced club trotting out an expensive collection of players that sometimes can’t string threes passes together and thinks he could do a better job teaching them how to attack as a unit. A shift in mentality has been a long time coming, but domineering legend that he is, nobody at Atleti was ever going to pierce Cholo’s delusion that every ugly win has been a validation of his philosophy and every eerily similar draw or defeat has been a fluke. The only opinion that matters is his own, and if it is indeed shifting, that’s at least an indication that he’s not dense, or completely lost to his own ego.
Cholo needs to overcome himself. He likes to joke, after a big victory, about he and his players’ gigantic balls, and it always gets a laugh in the press room, because when you win, the audience laughs easier. But the reality is his past few years at Atlético Madrid have revealed a certain cowardice within, an unwillingness to fail on unfamiliar terms and a comfort with losing so long as he’s gone down using trusty methods.
Those trusty methods have left the Atleti staggering and forced to retool, driven frustrated players to clubs where they believe they’ll more readily find success. This is not a crisis anywhere near the magnitude of the one Cholo inherited when he took over as manager. It’s a bourgeois problem. But that shouldn’t sit well with Simeone, who’s combative and restless and speaks constantly of his ambitions for the club that he loves. There’s still plenty of time for him to reinvigorate this stalled project he’s so impressively built. The first step is, a proud man has to change his thinking. Everything positive will follow from there, but it might be the most difficult part.