‘Cholismo’ has taken Atletico Madrid further than they ever imagined it would. This is the name given to Diego ‘El Cholo’ Simeone’s famed footballing philosophy. It’s a concept that has its roots in mindset and mentality as much as it does tactics and strategy. A frame of mind that has carried a club previously renowned for being losers to league titles and Champions League finals.
This summer, though, Simeone faces his toughest test as Atleti manager. ‘Cholismo’ might not survive, with many of the belief that the Argentinean must alter and adapt his ideology to keep the club at the top of the game. Atletico Madrid are a team in transition and 2019/20 will see them enter a new cycle.
Indeed, many of Simeone’s lieutenants (cliched military terms seem somewhat applicable to Atleti) have left this summer. Juanfran and Filipe Luis have been released, with Diego Godin, the bedrock of the Atletico Madrid defence for the best part of a decade, joining Inter. On top of this, midfield pace-setter Gabi departed last summer with Antoine Griezmann expected to sign for Barcelona at some point in this transfer window.
Simeone has been charged with building a new side. For generations, Atletico Madrid were the club of the working man in the Spanish capital, leaving the big-name, big-money signings to Real Madrid. When Atleti won La Liga five years ago, Tiago referred to them as “Robin Hood.” Now, however, times have changed somewhat with Atleti spending over £300 million in the past two transfer windows.
No signing embodies the transition Simeone is charged with delivering like Joao Felix, the Portuguese teenager who cost an astonishing £113 million from Benfica. There are no guarantees over Felix. He has, after all, played just one season of senior football. But at 19 years old, Felix is an investment in the future for Atleti.
For many, Atletico Madrid is the wrong place for a talent like Felix. While Simeone is often unfairly typecast as a defensive coach, his system requires maximum commitment from all, front to back, left to right. Griezmann’s goals made him Atleti’s frontman, but Simeone also saw a player who would chase back, involve himself in midfield then burst forward. This requires extreme physicality, something Felix, still growing and spindly-legged, doesn’t have.
To get the best out of their new record signing, Simeone will have to change his ways. He has tried to do this before, most notably at the start of last season when a conscious effort was made to open up Atleti’s frontline. Before too long, though, Simeone reverted to default, getting his team back on the straight and narrow, eventually finishing second in La Liga, but only through tried and tested, some would say limited, means.
In this sense, the task of a rebuild presents Simeone with an opportunity to fundamentally overhaul the culture of the dressing room as a whole. That is a culture he instilled in the first place, but now he must dismantle it, at least partially, if Atletico Madrid are to truly fulfil the potential they have as a club.
“This is one of the most difficult projects we have had since we arrived,” Simeone explained in a recent interview. “Lots of players are leaving and it is a difficult moment of transition. We have a challenge now. The renovation began last year, but it’s true that this is going to be complicated.”
The moves made last summer Simeone points out are part of the reason some doubt the Argentinean’s capacity for change. A year ago, close to £150 million was spent in the transfer market. But of the players who arrived, who thrived? Thomas Lemar has contributed, but not to the level many anticipated. Santiago Arias is now a first team figure, but is a downgrade on both Juanfran and Sime Vrsaljko.
Then there’s Gelson Martins, the Portuguese winger who has already departed the Metropolitano having failed to make an impression. And Nikola Kalinic is also expected to leave before the start of the new season. Rodri is the one exception, impressing to such a level that he is now seen as the natural successor to Sergio Busquets for Spain, but he has already been poached by Manchester City.
At their best, Atletico Madrid are among the shrewdest transfer market operators in Europe. Indeed, the majority of their legendary title-winning team of 2013/14 was assembled under the radar. Even since then, they have picked up the likes of Stefan Savic, Jan Oblak and Rodri for relatively modest fees.
At their transfer market worst, though, Atleti are scattergun merchants. Kevin Gameiro, Nico Gaitan, Jackson Martinez, Yannick Carrasco, Luciano Vietto, Mario Mandzukic, Alessio Cerci have all passed through the club in recent years having failed to live up to their billing. The majority of those players have been attacking players, leading to suggestions Simeone struggles to harness forwards. This track record isn’t especially encouraging for Felix.
Simeone has always been something of an exception. At a time when other managers of a similar mould started to find their methods and ideas out-dated (see Jose Mourinho), the Argentinean still found a way to make things work. In recent years, the European football zeitgeist has been set by managers favouring a fast and furious brand of the game (see Jurgen Klopp), but Simeone has managed to stay relevant.
For how much longer, though? Atletico Madrid only made it as far as the round of 16 in last season’s Champions League. The season before that, they were knocked out in the group stage. Of course, Atleti went on to win the Europa League that year, but that doesn’t quite satisfy the modern ambitions of the club.
Few managers have the sort of control that Simeone has at Atletico Madrid. They are a club entirely reflective of their manager’s identity. This, for years, has been a good thing. With this, however, Simeone has nobody else to blame if another transition of style and personnel goes awry. The Atleti you see this coming season will be different to the one we’ve all got used to. Simeone must make sure there is progression in that difference.