Diego Simeone, son of thunder and the father of Cholismo, has had to confront some existential questions about his tactical philosophy in recent years.
He upended Barcelona and Real Madrid’s grip on La Liga a decade ago and has ensconced his side among elite company. It hasn’t always been plain sailing in keeping up with Spain’s two heavyweights, but he has never stopped trying.
As football continues to move on at a seemingly impossible rate, Simeone struggled to keep pace.
“Football has changed,” he told La Gazzetta. “I think about [Diego] Godín and that generation; today, they would be overwhelmed in how they played. Everything is much quicker and I have also had to refresh my methods as a coach.”
It has taken years to finally land on a coherent and convincing style of play. After several false starts, failed launches and beta testing malfunctions, Cholismo 2.0 is here and it looks nothing like it’s predecessor.
We are still not even sure if the current iteration of Atlético — post-World Cup Atlético — is the real deal. The tactical change is evident and the results have been promising, but the caveat is they have had nothing to play for since after the World Cup. They were eliminated from the group stage of the Champions League, finishing last in a group made up of Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge and Porto. Any whispers of a title challenge were hushed with losses to Villarreal, Real Madrid, Cádiz and Mallorca.
Atlético have qualified for the Champions League for the 11th consecutive year under Simeone. That alone is incredible, but they did it this year (at least in the second half of the season) in style.
They are currently sitting third in La Liga and are about to round off what has arguably been Simeone’s best six-month spell of his time in charge of the club. Since the return of football after the World Cup, no team in La Liga has more goals than Atlético (45) and only Barcelona can match their number of wins (15). Only Villarreal (43.2) can better their expected goals tally (42.6).
If La Liga had started after the World Cup, Atlético would be top of the league after 22 games.
How have Diego Simeone’s Tactics Changed?
Good old-fashioned Cholismo. 4-4-2. Low block. Defend for your lives. Meat. Potatoes. Success. The formula behind Diego Simeone’s tactics was simple but the formula had to grow more complicated with the success that it brought. As the team began to grow in stature, Simeone had to evolve. He was being asked to find solutions with better, more expensive players in his squad. Players born to play with the ball and not put their bodies on the line for 90 minutes without it.
Through sweat, energy and volume, they overcame opponents.
To evolve, he had to let go of his old ideas completely. He wanted to let go, but he wasn’t going to just replace them with any old methods. If he was going to shed the final remnants of Cholismo 1.0, he would need something he believed in to replace it.
Simeone lost Rodri and Thomas Partey in successive years and never found a player of similar calibre to replace them. He has been cycling through deep midfielders and variations of a back three for years to paper over the cracks.
The idea was to build out from the back while making sure Atlético weren’t caught out with a structured opposition press, or worse, a counter-attack against a defensive side. The idea proved difficult to implement. Simeone didn’t think he had the answer to his build-up problems in the squad; the answer being a defender technically capable enough to construct a build-up around.
The answer was sitting under his nose all along.
Any discussion about Diego Simeone’s evolution has to start with Mario Hermoso. He might be the best left-sided centre-back in the world right now. There are few who are as important to his team’s tactics.
It wasn’t so long ago that Hermoso was climbing into the stands at the Civitas Metropolitano after a game to have a go at a group of fans who had insulted one of his teammates. This was the level of frustration around the team before the World Cup. They looked rudderless, floating adrift in a sea of stale possession and fear. There was talk that Simeone might walk away from his life’s work at the end of the season.
Hermoso, a talented centre-back who had signed from Espanyol and helped Atlético win the title two years prior, had fallen out of favour. He only played in three games in La Liga in the first half of the season. In one of them, he came on as a sub and was sent off 18 minutes later.
Simeone signed him as a replacement for Lucas Hernández, who left for Bayern Munich in 2019. Cholo had categorised Hermoso as just that, but Hermoso is no Lucas Hernández. Mario Hermoso is Mario Hermoso. The 27-year-old who came through Real Madrid’s academy is a world unto himself; a liability defensively at times, sure, but courageous on the ball and technically gifted enough to pick out the most adventurous of passes.
There are very few players Simeone has granted artistic freedom of expression to through the years. Antoine Griezmann is one and Hermoso has become another. He solves so many problems at once for Atlético that it’s difficult to wrap your head around.
He plays as an inverted midfielder in possession to prevent against the counter. This solves the problem Rodri and Partey left behind when they moved to England. It allows Koke to play as the deep-lying midfielder without needing an extra body from midfield or attack there to hide his lack of athleticism. He can step out to play left-back in a back four, giving Yannick Carrasco the freedom to maraud up the wing. He is not shy about getting into the box either.
Pep Guardiola has been getting praise recently for his use of John Stones in a hybrid role, but Simeone has been doing this with Hermoso for the last six months.
Hermoso has been involved in 13 open-play sequences that have ended in a goal in La Liga post-WC, which is the joint-most for a centre-back across Europe’s big five leagues (along with Nico Schlotterbeck).
Atlético have won 72.7% of their games with Hermoso as a starter, scoring 2.2 goals per game on average. They have won 42.9% without him, scoring just 1.2 goals.
The loss of Kieran Trippier hurt Atlético and Simeone has been searching for a right-back ever since.
Hermoso’s emergence as one of the premier left centre-backs helps on the other side of the field too. His left-footedness opens the left-hand side of the field to the possibility of an attack, meaning teams have to spread themselves thin horizontally across the field. Before, when right-footed Jose Giménez was playing as the left centre-back, teams knew he wasn’t risking a right-footed pass to the left that could be easily intercepted. It made defending against Atlético in possession a cinch.
Nahuel Molina has emerged post-World Cup like a new player. Hermoso to Molina is the most frequent combination of switches in La Liga this season (and Hermoso didn’t come into the team fully until after Qatar 2022). The Argentine deserves credit as he has been exceptional at right-back, but the key to this is Hermoso’s bravery and execution on the ball.
As Hermoso has flourished, so too has Atlético’s attack.
Antoine Griezmann Gets To Run It Back
It’s a wonder Griezmann ever left Atlético Madrid. He seemed perfectly happy there as the superstar of a team that played to maximise his strengths. Moving to Barcelona always felt like something he had to do rather than something he wanted to do. Not many players get the chance to rewind the clock, but Griezmann has and he is not taking it for granted. Despite not really challenging for the title, Griezmann has arguably been the best player in the league this season.
Only Robert Lewandowski (23 has more non-penalty goals than Griezmann this season (14). No player in La Liga has a higher expected assists (xA) tally than his 9.6, and he is the only player with double-digit assists this season too (13). His 27 goals and assists is second only to the goal machine Lewandowski (29).
As one of Simeone’s most trusted lieutenants, Griezmann plays like a player who can feel that trust and the responsibility that comes with it. As mentioned earlier, he has the freedom of the entire pitch. He can, will and often has played in a mind-blowing number of positions for Simeone.
Simeone trusts the Frenchman’s instincts but it didn’t come until he served his apprenticeship. It is worth mentioning here that it was a criticism levelled regularly at João Félix, who couldn’t adapt to Simeone’s style during his entire spell at the club. Griezmann is seen as everything the Portuguese attacker was not.
Griezmann’s production stats speak for themselves. No player has been involved in more attacking sequences than Griezmann in La Liga this season.
His versatility has often been praised but it might still be underrated. His commitment to the defensive side of the ball despite being the star of the team might be the most commendable part of his game. His 5.4 defensive actions per game puts him in the 93rd percentile among attackers in the big five leagues over the last 15 seasons.
Griezmann, Hermoso and Molina are the players rising the tide and it has lifted all ships. Yannick Carrasco is being courted by Bayern Munich and Barcelona after scoring six of his seven goals in the second half of the season. Saúl Ñiguez recently scored two consecutive goals for the first time since 2019-20. Players who once looked lost, have now been found.
Question Marks Going Into Next Season
Atlético Madrid fans would be right to feel a sense of excitement going into the summer, but there is still work ahead. There hasn’t always been a convergence in thinking between the club’s transfer strategy and Simeone’s tactics over the years.
João Félix, for example, was bought from Benfica for €126 million for some ideal, futuristic version of Atlético that didn’t exist yet. The club and Simeone were reading the same book but at different speeds. The directors raced through every page while Simeone agonised over every sentence to make sure he didn’t skip ahead.
The transfer strategy wasn’t helped by Simeone’s lack of a clear vision for his team. But now that he has one, the board can act accordingly.
Çağlar Söyüncü is already an Atletico Madrid player. He will likely replace Stefan Savic at the back but can play anywhere in a back three. The 27-year-old Turkish defender is further proof Atlético are leaning into a more possession-based approach. Söyüncü hasn’t played much this season but last year he touched the ball 81 times per 90, putting him in the 93rd percentile among defenders across Europe’s top five leagues compared to Savic’s 64 times per 90 (54th percentile).
They have also been linked with Arnau Martínez, one of the most exciting young players in La Liga this season, and Lee Kang-in is another name mentioned. Each of these players are most comfortable with the ball at their feet.
This might be another false dawn for Atlético, a team playing with nothing to lose. The stakes have been low since the World Cup but for the first time in a long time, they are moving in the right direction. The fog has lifted and Simeone, the man leading the expedition into the promised land, can see the path forward.