Argentina are chugging along nicely under Alejandro Sabella and will be one of the favorites to win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but whenever their next managerial change occurs, the man most likely to take charge will be Diego Simeone.
The former Albicelestes hard man now has seven years of coaching experience behind him and has earned the reputation as one of the best in the business.
His career trajectory to this point would indicate that if handed the Argentina job, Simeone would be well-equipped to succeed.
Simeone the Player
A fixture at the heart of Argentina's midfield for over a decade, "El Cholo" earned a remarkable 106 caps for his national side.
He represented his country at three World Cups, and won two Copa Americas for the sky blue and whites.
Best known for being a hard-edged enforcer, Simeone was also an adept passer from the base of midfield, a streetwise competitor and an inspirational leader.
He won La Liga and Copa del Rey with Atletico, the UEFA Cup with Inter in 1997-98 and he also claimed the league and cup double in Italy with Lazio in 1999-00.
There is a theory that central midfielders—and defensive-minded ones in particular—make the best managers once they have hung up their boots, and Simeone's continued success supports that claim.
Cruyff, who is now Director of Football at Maccabi Tel Aviv, explains why he prefers to appoint that type of player to the head coaching role:
I have a theory that the best coaches are those who were defensive midfielders in their playing days—look at Pep Guardiola, Oscar Garcia, our current coach Paulo Sousa and Roberto Martinez.
The defensive midfielder always has players around him—he has to have a very good awareness and possess the ability to make decisions quickly.
It is not a guarantee of success, but it is not a coincidence that the two coaches I have appointed—Oscar Garcia and Paulo Sousa—played in that position.
Simeone will have gained an immeasurable wealth of experience in his long career by lining up alongside such legendary players as Juan Sebastian Veron, Alessandro Nesta, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Pavel Nedved, Diego Maradona, Kiki and Fernando Redondo.
As a manager he has shown he understands perfectly what makes professional footballers tick.
Simeone's early coaching career, perhaps reflecting the mercurial nature of Argentine football, fluctuated quite rapidly between success and failure.
His current stint with Atletico Madrid represents the longest spell of his managerial career, and a clearer picture of his philosophy and preferred tactical systems is emerging.
|Estudiantes (2006-07)||61||34/15/12||Apertura 2006|
|River Plate (2008)||45||20/13/12||Clausura 2008|
|San Lorenzo (2009-10)||46||21/9/17|
|Atletico Madrid (2011-present)||94||59/19/16||Europa League 2012, European Super Cup 2012, Copa del Rey 2013|
Simeone wound down his playing days at Racing in his homeland, then took up a coaching role with the team immediately upon his retirement. Internal tumult at the club ensured his tenure was a brief one, but he was soon given the chance to wage a full league campaign with La Plata club, Estudiantes.
Though there was confidence in Argentina that Simeone would make an accomplished manager, few would have expected the silverware to come so soon.
Estudiantes, led by the recently returned Juan Sebastian Veron, won their first league title in 23 years under the novice coach, sealing the triumph with a playoff win over Boca Juniors. A year later, Simeone would leave the club before completing his contract, however, after his relationship with directors soured.
Taking up the reins at River Plate in December, 2007, Simeone again enjoyed early success. His side clinched the 2008 Clausura with a 2-1 win over Olimpo on the penultimate match day.
Things rapidly fell apart for River after that title win, though, beginning with their shocking elimination from the Copa Libertadores at the hands of San Lorenzo after seemingly holding an unassailable lead in their two-legged tie.
A string of terrible results followed, and Simeone finally abandoned his position in November of 2008 when the Buenos Aires giants were knocked out of the Copa Sudamericana and lay rooted to the bottom of the Primera table.
With his golden boy reputation slightly tarnished, El Cholo moved to another of Argentina's 'Big Five' sides, San Lorenzo, who he guided to a mid-table finish. Following a poor start to the 2010 Clausura, Simeone stood down as coach, before taking a nine-month hiatus.
European football beckoned, and the Argentine took charge at Catania, where his charge was to save the struggling club from relegation from Serie A. He did better than that, leading the side to a comfortable 13th-place finish.
A surprise move back to Racing followed, as the now sought-after manager decided to return to Argentina for family reasons. A strong Racing team finished second in the league before Simeone quit in December, 2011, and four days later accepted an offer to work at Atletico Madrid.
Atletico had qualified for the knock-out stages of the Europa League, but were doing poorly in La Liga when Simeone was appointed, and the Argentine was able to immediately galvanize the squad and produce some impressive results.
The Madrid side romped to the 2011-12 Europa League title, defeating the Marcelo Bielsa-coached Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in the final, and rallied to finish fifth in La Liga. Atletico went on to beat Chelsea in the European Super Cup, then upset Real Madrid to claim the 2013 Copa del Rey. They also finished third in the league, qualifying automatically for the Champions League for the first time since 1995-96.
On the back of this fine run of form, Simeone signed a contract extension with the club in May which extends his stay there for another four years.
Despite losing star forward Radamel Falcao, Atleti picked up David Villa during the summer transfer window and are off to a flying start in 2013-14, cruising to six straight wins to start the season.
Argentine coaches are generally classified as either "Menottistas" or "Bilardistas" in their homeland, with those from the first group preferring to play an attractive style of football like that of 1978 World Cup-winning coach Cesar Luis Menotti, and the latter favoring a more pragmatic approach like Carlos Bilardo, who guided the 1986 Argentina team to victory in the tournament.
Simeone clearly belongs with the Bilardistas, though he should not be regarded as a purely defense-minded manager, as many of them tend to be.
He has proven to be flexible in his approach, depending on what circumstances require from his team. Catania's cavalier playing style under the Argentine, for example, caught many of their opponents unawares and helped them gain precious competition points.
In general terms, though, the sides he oversees are gritty, determined and extremely hard to beat.
El Cholo's tenacious personality, which once shone through in his playing style, is now reflected in the teams he sends out onto the pitch. His players are expected to be hardworking and disciplined, adhering rigidly to the tactical plan laid out for them.
Atletico, in particular, have shown themselves to be a well-structured unit that defends well and pressures high up the pitch. This solid defensive base and cohesive plan in turn allows the flair players to express themselves in the attacking zones.
He is also able to instill his own natural fighting qualities into the players he coaches.
Falcao heaped praise on the manager in an interview with Argentine daily Ole soon after Simeone arrived at Atletico (translated from Spanish):
The way that he approaches football is very contagious.
Right now, with the situation we're going through, we need a person like that. We're getting an emotional lift. To know him, to work with him, is exciting to me.
I know what I can give him and what he can give to me. I'm trying to work as hard as ever, knowing that soon everything could begin to pay off.
Preferred Tactical Methods
Simeone's sides have always been reliant on hard work, organization and fairly traditional tactical setups.
His preferred formation is 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-2-2, with the latter the current default at Atletico Madrid.
The manager relies on a back-line composed of fast, physical defenders who are adept at winning possession then launching rapid counterattacks.
His two deep-lying midfielders, created in the image of Simeone the player, are expected to toil extremely hard in order to dominate the center of the pitch, short-circuiting opposition attacks and quickly moving the ball when Atletico have possession.
The wide midfielders help out in defense but must be ready to jet along the touchline to offer an outlet when the ball is turned over.
The critical zone is the space ahead of the central midfielders and behind the strikers. When the side is on the offensive, any of a number of players can drift into that area to facilitate the attack, whether it is the wide men cutting in, one of the deep midfielders coming forward, or a striker dropping back.
Quick, clinical forwards who can burst through the defensive line to latch onto through balls and then put away their chances are also key in the functionality of the system.
All three of Falcao's goals in the final of the Super Cup against Chelsea came from final passes from teammates who had slid into Atletico's "danger zone," though the Colombian striker's brilliance was obviously a major factor.
Should Simeone one day take over the coaching role for Argentina, he would have an abundance of midfielders and forwards who could fulfill these duties with assurance, though he has shown himself willing to adapt his formation to suit the personnel at his disposal.
When Could We See El Cholo In Charge of Argentina?
Alejandro Sabella is unlikely to leave the coaching position vacant any time soon.
So accomplished has his work been so far in terms of securing positive results and developing a defined playing style for the Albicelestes that only a disastrous showing at the World Cup next year would result in his axing.
"The Sloth" may well endeavor to hold his job right up until the 2018 tournament.
That time frame may well be ideal for Simeone, however, as he attempts to topple the Real Madrid/Barcelona duopoly in Spain while gaining precious experience at the highest level.
Sabella is another pragmatic manager, so a transition from one to the other would, in theory, be relatively smooth.
If Simeone's stock continue to rise, it will be a matter of when, rather than if, he is entrusted with the task of directing the Argentine national team.