‘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.