With Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid winning the La Liga title—after it looked on some occasions like no one wanted to win it—the Argentine coach and former player has now won four trophies in just two and a half years.
And it is unquestionably deserved, although it has to be said they nearly did their best to conspire to lose it. Previous honours with Atletico have been in knock-out tournaments—although, make no mistake, Saturday’s La Liga decider was a cup final in everything but name.
And in must-win—or at the very least, must-not-lose—matches like this, Simeone, who has only lost two out of 16 such games, has the Midas touch.
So what’s his secret? How has he worked the miracle that brings the first La Liga title to the Vicente Calderon since 1996?
Simeone’s charm is not so much in the football he plays, because you can always question whether or not it is a style that can last long term or is particularly attractive. Quite simply, what Simeone does is bring a passion, philosophy, and heart-on-the-sleeve approach to the game that has earned him the respect and admiration of the footballing world.
For the first time ever at the Camp Nou, I heard not just Barcelona fans give Simeone an ovation, I actually heard some of them chant "Atleti."
The tactics are simple. It’s about killing spaces, a strong defensive approach with continous help from each player alongside a deadly counter-attack. Man management, not just by Simeone, but also some of the other players, has helped.
At the start of the season, midfielder Tiago Mendes took Diego Costa to one side and told him that, although he may not have realised it, he was regarded by everyone as their leader. All he had to do was lead from the front, control his tinderbox temperament, and everyone else would do the rest.
It was similar with Adrian, who was out of favour and away from the squad for seven consecutive weeks before finally coming back into the fold when Costa was injured. Aware that Adrian and Diego Ribas are the two most skilful players in his squad, Simeone built Adrian’s confidence up to the point that he managed to step up to the plate when most needed, against Barcelona and Chelsea.
That said, it didn’t stop him replacing Adrian at the Camp Nou after he himself had come on for an injured Diego Costa, when Simeone felt he wasn’t tracking back enough and putting in an adequate defensive shift.
In Gabi, he has his own Captain Marvel, effectively another Simeone, but on the pitch. The perfect skipper, a changed man since he was relegated with Zaragoza in 2007 and who now plays every minute of every game as if it were his last.
David Villa came to the club with the idea of being the side’s goalscorer, and although things haven't quite turned out like that—because, in truth, he has lost a little bit of sparkle and quite a lot of pace—he has been told all season how important he has been to the overall project.
When I spoke to him after the game, he told me just how much this La Liga title meant to him, even as much as winning the Champions League with Barcelona.
In the 22-year-old Koke, Simeone has a player already regarded as one of the finest midfielders in the world, not just because of his tireless work rate but for his numerous assists (13 in the league, two in the Champions League). And while there is probably room for improvement in the goal scoring side of his game, he would probably be the first to point out that it was his goal in the home leg of the quarter-final against Barcelona that saw them progress into the semis.
Full-backs have been excellent and have improved beyond measure under Simeone’s tutelage. Juanfran is in Vicente del Bosque’s 30-man Spain squad for the World Cup, while Miranda and Filipe Luis should, in my opinion, be in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazilian squad.
And when things haven’t always gone according to plan, there was still the man-mountain in goal that is Thibaut Courtois. In the league, he was only beaten 26 times in 38 games this season.
Courtois would like to stay another year at Atletico, and while Costa is definitely on his way to Chelsea, the club will be doing their level best to convince Chelsea to let him stay for one more season. I feel Jose Mourinho will bring him to London.
Shortly after the start of the second half of the season, Atletico experienced a slight dip in form that saw them drop seven points out of a possible 15. Simeone soon realised that teams had started to defend much deeper against them and, as a result, work had to be done on the training ground on how to break such defences down.
Even then, without Costa in the lineup, and sometimes even with him, they struggled to hit the target, scoring just three goals from no fewer than 50 attempts in the last three matches against Levante, Malaga and Barcelona. The truth is that Atletico actually won the league by taking just two points from the last nine available.
This is something Simeone will have to address next season, especially on the training ground, and he will need the quality of player to do it, because deep-defending opponents will definitely be the order of the day.
But for now, no one could begrudge them their glory. A glory achieved by a manager who, by hook or by crook, always got the absolute maximum from his side.