It’s difficult to describe inertia, the act of something not happening. In the editor’s note for The Pale King, the novel David Foster Wallace didn’t finish before his suicide, of which I read about 30 pages eight years ago, Michael Pietsch says that he had a hard time, while assembling Wallace’s manuscript into something publishable, figuring out how unfinished the book actually was. There were notes from Wallace on various drafts that said stuff like “[the novel] is a series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens” and “something big threatens to happen but doesn’t actually happen.” It’s possible that the material Pietsch was working with was more or less complete if not quite as sharp as DFW would have liked. Or that the author wasn’t even close to done and had many more thousands of words to write when he hung himself in his garage.
There’s a Chris Marker movie that I watched when I lived in a different part of town than I do now, or my faulty memory is simply inventing it, that I cannot think of the name of—no, it’s not La Jetée or Sans Soleil—about the moments before and after things happen: anticipation and aftermath. What if you lived only in those changeless slivers of time? It actually might be an essay. Marker talked about time all the time, stasis and revolution and memory and dreaming, across many mediums. It’s depressing, how many things you don’t know, or can’t remember learning.
In 2015, following what seemed like a failed effort to play Real Madrid to a 210-minute nil-nil draw in the Champions League, Diego Simeone responded to criticism of Atlético Madrid’s hyperconservative style: “football is great but we all feel we are right and everything is up for debate, we are all coaches. But it's the ones who are on the pitch who have to make decisions. This is all a reaction from one negative result.”
In 2016, following his team’s meek display and narrow penalty shootout loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League final, Cholo said “this cycle for me at Atlético, two finals in three years is actually a marvelous achievement, but I am not happy with what I have achieved.” He considered leaving the club, wondering if he had taken them as far as he could, but returned the next season.
In 2017, following his team having scored one goal against and twice drawn Azerbaijan Premier League champs Qarabag, effectively crashing themselves out of the Champions League group stage, Cholo said “we have always played the same way. In the past six years we have won 30 or 40 games like this and the only difference is when you score the goal people talk about strength and spirit and, when you don't, they see the more negative part.”
In 2018, etc. In 2019, etc. In 2020, etc. The failures and quotes continue in that vein; none of it is interesting. The only way to describe inertia, the act of something not happening, is to describe it in detail, to make your audience as weary from the experience of reading your description—is this going somewhere, or…?—as the experience of non-transformation itself is. Let’s not do that here, any more than we already have. Let’s assume you’ve lived, that you know what boredom and disappointment feel like.
Cholo Simeone has made up his mind. He’s more than entitled to, having dragged Atlético Madrid from the midtable gutter to their current state as the third-best club in Spain and a perennial, if of late not particularly convincing, trophy contender. “[Cholo] is the one who picks the team,” Atleti president Enrique Cerezo said after the club’s dismal Champions League loss against Leipzig this past August. “And if you don’t like it, then go buy your own team, build your own team and choose your own lineup.”
Fair enough! The lineup Cholo chose included Diego Costa, with whom Cholo won a league title in 2014, and for whom his sentimentality runs ruinously deep. Cholo loves Costa, they have a special relationship, and Diego Costa, in 2020, is completely useless. He can’t run, his touch is heavy. He doesn’t finish chances, or even get in position to take them very often. He’s a truly bad player, the kind you don’t typically see on Champions League squads, let alone in their starting lineup. Cholo picked him because he’s tough, which means less than nothing. It means I can’t see how bad this guy is, because he fits my sensibilities. Costa started over Alvaro Morata, who is a bit of a wuss, but a vastly more talented and effective striker at this point in their respective careers.
Well, that upset fans, which Cerezo dismissively boo-hoo’d, and it also, much more damagingly, upset Morata. And Morata’s a temperamental guy. You want to pat him on the head and tell him you’ve got all the confidence in the world in him, or he won’t play well. It’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that if you start dropping Morata for no good reason, he will get mad at you and down on himself, and then there will actually be a good reason to drop him, because he’ll start to suck. Cholo either knows this and doesn’t care—toughen up, Alvaro!—or worse, is blind to what literally anyone who has followed Alvaro Morata’s career even a little bit has seen. Anyway, Morata left the club over this dispute. He doesn’t want to play for a manager who doesn’t trust him, or at least doesn’t think he’s better than Diego Costa. He’ll be on loan at Juventus for the next two seasons, with an option to buy.
Also missing against Leipzig, for less ridiculous reasons, was Thomas Partey. The Ghanian midfielder had fractured his leg a few weeks before the match and wasn’t fully recovered. Now would be a fine time to further describe how Atleti played in his absence: they were awful. They couldn’t control the game at all, didn’t seem particularly interested in attacking a Leipzig squad that was in poor form and without their best player, Timo Werner, who had left to join Chelsea. The conservative mentality in big matches is a Cholo thing, but Atleti tend not to be able to do much of anything without Thomas in the midfield. He was, no coincidence, also missing for their last embarrassing Champions League defeat, a 3-0 drubbing against Juventus in 2019’s opening knockout round. He’s a well-rounded player, covering a lot of ground defensively and occasionally uncorking a wicked strike from distance, but most importantly, he’s the only midfielder in the team who plays strong, progressive passes. Everyone else, including and especially Cholo favorites Koke and Saúl, goes sideways and backwards. They slow the play down, take too many touches. They hit it long, in the general direction of an advancing winger.
Thomas is an essential player, but he’s not treated that way, by the club or by the manager. He’s been the team’s best midfielder for three years but only locked down a starting position last season, and even then, Cholo occasionally makes it clear he’s not one of the first names on the team sheet by rotating him out of the lineup while other regular starters stay put. His contemporaries and competition, Koke and Saúl, both pull down much higher salaries. Atleti don’t see in Thomas what anyone with a brain does. He asked for a new contract repeatedly last year. They lowballed him until the pandemic hit, and then they were unable to give him one.
He’s now left for Arsenal. They’ve come in on deadline day to pay his relatively low $58 million release clause. He didn’t necessarily want to leave, having been at Atleti since he emigrated from Ghana at 18. But when you’re not properly valued, you start thinking about moving on, and there are worse things than making good wages playing for a historic club in London. You might credibly argue it’s quite a bit better than playing for Atlético Madrid.
They’ve become a sour institution. Or no, that is not totally accurate: their dormant sourness is blooming once again. They used to be a product of widespread dysfunction. Atleti were the most chaotic club in Spain, firing managers left and right, making impulse buys in the transfer market, getting into arguments in the locker room—ones that would sometimes spill over onto the pitch. The reason Cholo Simeone commands as much respect as he does is because he quelled most of that. He whipped an underachieving mess of a club into their current shape: stocked with talent, financially stable, playing in a new stadium that wouldn’t have been built had Atleti not qualified for the Champions League several years in a row. Cholo’s the highest-paid manager in the world, and his bosses will tell you, he’s worth every Euro.
They’ll tell you that because they love paying themselves bonuses every summer, not because their manager has done a competent job over the past few seasons. There is so much that’s wrong with Cholo’s Atleti, beneath the hood. I covered a good deal of it last summer, when the club overhauled its roster, saying goodbye to back line legends Diego Godin, Filipe Luis, and Juanfran; letting Antoine Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez, and Rodri leave in big money moves; and using the resultant cash to reinforce the midfield, build an almost entirely new defense, and swap out the nearly 30-year-old Griezmann with the not yet 20-year-old Joao Felix. That was an unhappy offseason, the termination of a cycle that had probably gone on a year too long. “After underperforming for three straight years and fighting like mad to keep hold of their best players,” I wrote then, “Atlético Madrid are finally suffering an exodus.” It wasn’t a disaster so much as a retreat to a fallback position. The exits helped Atleti balance their books and many of the replacements they brought in were young players with room to grow. They likely wouldn’t be great in 2019-20, but they would progress in a new direction.
The first thing held true. Atleti were thoroughly not great last season. They got themselves together, particularly after the pandemic-induced intermission, and qualified for the Champions League, and they knocked Liverpool out of the tournament with one of their best performances of the season in the home leg and one of their luckiest at Anfield, but the year was just barely successful.
The new direction, rather unsurprisingly, has not been plotted. Another Cholo quote, from the spring of 2019, discussing his team’s defensive approach: “the style [I employ] is given by the players on the roster. I do not have a style to go to a smaller team and practice my supposed style, I have to adapt to the club that hires me, empower those players and as an employee, make the club grow.”
This would have been a reasonable thing to say in 2012, shortly after Cholo took over an outfit that was a cash-strapped, talent-starved wreck. It was ridiculous to say in 2019, when Atleti had just the previous summer purchased Thomas Lemar, an immensely gifted attacking midfielder pursued by half of Europe, for $82 million. Lemar, by the way, has had his confidence completely destroyed by playing in Atleti’s hyperconservative system. Two years into his Atleti tenure, he barely plays and when he does, he looks terrified to make a mistake. They’ve spent this offseason trying to sell him off or loan him out and can’t find a buyer who will give them a decent fee. Lemar belongs to what is now a long line of creative players who have come to Atleti and immediately fallen off a cliff. The players do not dictate style to Cholo. He dictates it to them.
Atleti are approaching a kind of anti-realization. They are close to becoming what Cholo Simeone has always wanted them to be, which is what they used to be, which is a not terribly good team that punches above its weight because they defend deep and never stop running. They’ve brought in Luis Suarez to replace Morata, which is very 2015 of them, and Thomas is going to be replaced by Lucas Torreira, which is Arsenal swapping a midfielder they don’t want for one that they do. It’s an exaggeration to say that they’re back where they were when Cholo took over, because that’s impossible, but they haven’t moved forward for many seasons now. Their miserable soccer is a fixed identity, and it’s starting to cost them.
Cholo’s a smart guy, but intensely stubborn, and he hasn’t considered the inverse of his formulation: players dictate styles, but styles also dictate players. To put it simply, when you aspire only to brutal 1-0 wins, and you end every European season with a narrow loss that you didn’t take any initiative in, with players who could do so much more, eventually you will find yourself with a squad full of players who can give you only that. It’s a boring death; it does not make for an interesting story. The arc is a steady decline, like a company slowly running out of money. You just refuse to change, and refuse, and refuse, and refuse. And then you find, in the end, that you aren’t even what you used to be anymore, because that wasn’t an option. When nothing seems to happen, the world keeps stirring around the bubble of stillness you’ve built for yourself. It leaves you behind.
Atlético Madrid’s last two matches have been scoreless draws. Cholo, after the most recent one: “the result is not what we wanted, but I liked the team’s attitude.” Over the course of 90 minutes, they didn’t register a single shot on goal.