After a 7-year wait, Diego Simeone won the La Liga title again and the race for the title went down the wire and on the last day, the title was decided. Simeone is a relieved man but there is no time to relax because to defend the title, he knows very well, how well he has to prepare as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla will also pose a tough challenge.
In an interview with MARCA, Simeone shared his views.
Here are the excerpts:
May 22. Valladolid. What is the first thing that comes to your mind from that day?
What comes to mind is joy, a lot of joy. Emotion. There was a lot of work before May 22. Many seek that moment, but I want to go back. Without that previous work, we would not have been able to improve the history of Atletico.
It was about the effort of the club, those difficult moments in 2011 or 2012 in which we select players that allowed us to grow.
When you won this title, you showed eight fingers for your eight titles. Has this been the most complicated of all?
I do not know if this is the most difficult. They are all complex. The most difficult of all was the change in realizing that we could start winning competitions as we did against Real Madrid in the 2013 Copa del Rey. We hadn’t beaten them for 14 years. It was difficult, at the Bernabeu, where the stadium was not neutral.
It was not possible to play at the Vicente Calderon. Then we began to change history. In Europe, with Quique Sanchez Flores, we had already won the Europa League and the UEFA Super Cup, but at the national level, we needed to be important again. It was the most complicated.
You wanted to show that you could compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two great giants.
People always think I claim victimhood, but it is true that Real Madrid and Barcelona have almost always been superior. It’s the squads, all the years they’ve competed. But, that does not mean that in any given year you will be better. It happened in 2014 when we were better. It happened in 2021.
We have been better, but that does not mean we are better. But, Real Madrid and Barcelona know they can’t make mistakes. We know our place and we want to improve, but that is not victimhood. Everyone interprets it however they want. The reality is that Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, PSG, Manchester City, Bayern… They are historic clubs, but that is not why they will always win.
When you sell the idea of Atletico being the people’s team, do you feel like it bothers people?
I don’t sell anything. I say what I feel. We know how we have got to today. Every year the aim is to be stronger and players now want to come to Atletico. In the last two years, they did not understand when I spoke of the transition period and how it is going to happen to everyone, including Real Madrid and Barcelona because age happens to all of us. We were very competitive in the 2019/20 season and in the most recent one we made history.
Of your eight complete league seasons, four have been won by Barcelona, two by Real Madrid and two by Atletico Madrid. What would the Simeone of 2011 have said if you told him this?
I came thinking of the best. When the option of coming to Atletico appeared, I mentally prepared myself. From the moment I got on the plane, we knew that we were going to do the best thing that could happen to us, which was to win. And we did it match by match.
The first dinner we had with the club hierarchy, I told them this and that I think it is the best way to face life. If you think three teams ahead, you disrespect the previous two. In the first press conference, I said that I wanted a competitive team, a counter-attacking team that would maintain the essence of Atletico. With the work of many people, today this philosophy is inserted in the club.
And there is a recognizable style.
Styles may change. We won with 4-4-2 in 2014 and last season with 5-3-2 and 4-3-3. Even when we play friendlies, you have to win. We have started the pre-season with four professional players and the rest from the academy. They will play four friendlies. We prepare people to understand this.
This last season is when there were more variations in the team.
We have improved our coaching. In training, those who have arrived are closer to the game that we propose than before. That is where we have gained something. The title is a cup, very nice, but as a coaching staff, we can try to make the players perform better. The growth of Mario Hermoso, Yannick Carrasco, Joao Felix until his injury, Thomas Lemar, Stefan Savic’s season, the growth of Jan Oblak beyond the goal, Kieran Trippier’s game, the presence of Angel Correa, of Luis Suarez who came to be champion. They represent what the footballers asked of us.
Let’s go to the household names of La Liga Santander. It’s impossible not to start with Luis Suarez. 21 goals. His competitive hunger. His ability to fight everything, even against his own physique. Did you expect that hunger and is it so important in a dressing room?
Surely. Talking about Luis Suarez is simple, he has always shown it. At the moment the option appeared, I knew that the team lacked that forcefulness. There are not many like him. There are few specialists and he is one of them.
We understood that if we continued to be solid behind him, he would be closer to responding in the most difficult moments when he had to appear in the ‘Suarez area’. I’m not a fortune teller, but I’m a football man and I knew it was his time.
That was expected from Suarez … but how does a player like Marcos Llorente become one of the best in La Liga Santander?
When Marcos arrived, we thought of him as a central midfielder after seeing him at Real Madrid. We played 4-4-2 and he was left out of the squad many times. It caught my attention that Llorente never gave up in training or physically, always trying to show what he had. And it showed when he was among the substitutes. He scored a goal, another goal. Speaking with the assistant coaches, we said that we had to find a position for him. We spoke with him. We put him in against Valencia and he scored. It was beginning to confirm what we saw.
Then Liverpool happened, with what some perceive as a defensive change of removing Diego Costa for Llorente. Nobody knows footballers better than the coach, no one is going to get more out of them. The coach does not want to lose, he always wants to win. You do not put in a player to play badly. Then came the pandemic. In Bilbao there were several players missing and Marcos played there as second striker, where he did very well. The field tells you what you have to do. We find him a position where he feels most comfortable and is most important.
Among those players who never give up is Correa. Is he a Simeone prototype player?
We have a lot of them, with Jose Maria Gimenez, Hermoso is getting closer and closer, Carrasco last season. I don’t want to forget any of them. Some players took longer like Thomas Lemar. It has been difficult for Joao Felix, but he is intelligent, he has talent and time to identify himself.
In that hug at Real Betis, I hugged a son. I told him ‘Angel, they criticize you for missing goals, but how many do the others have?’ I told him they would come and not to let up. Football ends up paying you back and it did so by him scoring a crucial goal.”
How important is the psychological factor of Simeone supporting Correa in the management of the group?
Coaches are managers of emotions. Every major team has good footballers. But talent alone is not enough. It is clear that to get here you have to have it. But, at Atletico, you have to have something different, understand what we play.
Commitment, personality, security, strength. We work to manage that state. With provocation, distance. What you do with people you love. I love my players while they are with me to death. I try to push them until they don’t have any more.
Perhaps no one understands that better than Koke, the only player who has been there since your arrival. Can Atleti be understood without him?
I remember a lot, during the season, what I read. There are opinions that make you review, constructive ones that make you open your mind. Many times I read about us having so many midfielders, that he could play and not Lucas Torreira, Geoffrey Kondogbia… But with three central midfielders, I understood that Koke has a vision of the game that means he can play in different positions.
The first day I arrived he was going to Malaga and we told him that we did not know if he was going to be important with Arda Turan, Diego… but that he was going to be important to us. I saw things in him. His growth as a captain has evolved and he will have to do it again.
And Oblak, always Oblak. A fifth Zamora and decisive stops. One day you said he was Atletico’s Messi. What does it mean to have such a decisive goalkeeper?
We look for a goalkeeper who has peace of mind. If someone is calm, it is him. Nothing disturbs him. Nothing makes him anxious.
He is also the best goalkeeper in the world. It is no coincidence that the Zamora goes beyond the collective game. Beyond that, he has taken a tremendous step in the dressing room. He doesn’t need to talk much, but when he speaks he is heard.
In a less positive sense, much has been said about Joao Felix. What does he lack to become the superstar he has the potential to be?
We don’t all mature in the same way, as people or footballers. He has had this season, where he started in an extraordinary way and an ankle problem that makes it very difficult for him, due to the way he plays. The fans and journalists don’t care about anything because the boy plays well and they want him to play.
We didn’t put him in one game because we thought he couldn’t give us what we needed at that time. He plays well and you have to try to find a place for him. The number of minutes does not matter, the quality of minutes does.
Although it is a different case from Joao Felix, there is much talk about Saul’s possible departure. What do you think about this?
You know better than anyone what Saul has asked for and looked for. We have known him for eight years. He has shared a lot of time with us. What empowered him to be what he was in his ability to play in different positions and, when his level dropped, the same thing was used against him.
But this is not the case, this does not go against him. They are just moments. After so much time, players need air and, after so many years, the last season was more difficult for him, although he competed and played many games. It is clear that in the competition with Lemar if he had been playing well, he would have played over Lemar.
But if he ends up staying…
You know me. I think about those who are here and not about those who are not.
Let’s talk a little bit about the difficult side of the game. What led you to bet on three central midfielders and make Carrasco into a left-footed winger?
Different things. In the defensive, things were difficult after so many years. The pressures weren’t the same anymore. The players are different. We needed Suarez closer to the area. It took Hermoso a year to understand that we were looking for a player like Lucas as a centre-back or left-back, but in the second season, he got it and helped us have a better start. The first game was in Pamplona.
The first half was normal, with Vitolo. The second half was extraordinary and we thought that everyone felt more comfortable: Savic, Gimenez, Felipe, … Trippier and his vision. Carrasco as a specialist. Saul, Lemar, Hector Herrera, many options. While Correa and Joao fought for a place … plus Suarez.
In that new system, Koke appeared as a midfielder. Was it one of the keys?
Those who did the best in that position were Herrera, who played a lot until he was injured because he has personality and wants the ball. From Herrera, no doubt Koke. Kondogbia has to grow. He is the type of footballer we want. Having the possibility of that replacement in the middle will give us options.
With this team, many goals have been scored and many chances have been created. But it is still branded defensive. Does it bother you?
They are labels. It doesn’t bother me. Nor does it elevate me when they congratulate you or talk exaggeratedly about you as a coach after a title. There is no doubt that we are a team that grows from defensive security. Is Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea defensive or offensive?
It is not known, but he defends well and attacks well. When we played against them, we thought it was a simple team and it was a Chelsea that we had already seen. They were better. In the second game, we saw that they were at a different pace. They attracted you to generate spaces. We really liked it. Perhaps those who do not watch us put these labels on us. When you see our numbers, we were champions for a reason.
Rodrigo de Paul has arrived. What can your compatriot bring to the team?
He started on the left-wing, then he came to Valencia. Then he grew up in Udinese. I associate his characteristics with Koke, Herrera, Lemar… the others. We need people to take that step prior to the final attack and pause so that the wingers or forwards can attack.
Look at Spain, they had a great tournament, wonderful, but the goals have to come. We look at the average numbers Llorente had, as he scored 12 goals and I don’t know if he will repeat that. So, Saul, Lemar, De Paul add to that.
It is said that you convinced De Paul with a call. But you don’t phone all the signings, right?
[Llaughs] No, I don’t call everyone. When I called him he said ‘look, Cholo, I have told your club that Atletico was the only club where I wanted to play’. I replied ‘see you in 20 days.