Carmichael’s Column | Evolution of Cholismo makes Atlético Madrid firm La Liga favourites

Diego Simeone Atletico Madrid

Diego Simeone has forged a steely reputation as an elite defensive manager, but this season he's proved Atlético Madrid can also blend style with substance.

Tuesday night’s Champions League action saw Atlético Madrid take on current holders Bayern Munich, and if you haven’t seen much of Simeone’s side this season, Atlético’s performance may well have come as a bit of a shock.

Unlike in previous years, Atlético played on the front foot, looked to control possession, and created more and better chances than their opponents over the course of 90 minutes.

Club record signing João Félix in particular was magnificent, dropping deep to interlink play with a plethora of wonderful flicks and touches, and got across his marker expertly to dispatch Atlético’s only goal of the evening.

Joao Felix La Liga stats

Atléti are also undefeated in La Liga this season, sitting in second place behind current table-toppers Real Sociedad, and boast two games in hand over the leaders.

A quick inspection of the goals conceded column reads two against, which indicates Atléti are staying true to their usual selves: hard-working, defensively organised, tough to break down. But that only tells half the story.

Manager Diego Simeone has long been painted as a master tactician, thriving on football’s dark arts, but to purely label him a defensive manager would be doing the coach a great disservice.

La Liga table

“His overall coaching philosophy, known as Cholismo, is to find the best use for the resources available,” Euan McTear, author of Hijacking La Liga: How Atletico Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid's Duopoly on Spanish Football tells GiveMeSport. “Before he was at Atlético, that meant a very attacking brand of football in some cases.”

Indeed, Simeone demonstrated a penchant for attacking flair in his formative managerial years, drawing inspiration from one of his mentors, Marcelo Bielsa, to deploy a 3-3-1-3 formation while in charge at River Plate, leading them to the Argentine Primera División title in 2008.

Simeone’s philosophy has evolved somewhat since then, and now resembles tactical similarities to some of his other former coaches — namely Luigi Simoni’s regimented Inter Milan side, or Carlos Bilardo’s no-nonsense Argentina.

The core principles, however, remain the same. “It’s all about effort and intensity and squeezing certain parts of the pitch at the right moment,” McTear adds.

Now it appears another iteration of Cholismo is at play, one that is likely to ascend Atlético to new heights. As noted, Simeone’s coaching outlook is largely shaped by his resources, and the arrival of key players in last summer’s transfer window have put new tools at his disposal.

Instrumentally, it’s been the signing of Barcelona star Luis Suárez that has allowed Simeone to shift tack. Unlike Álvaro Morata or Diego Costa, Suárez thrives on clever play in short passing sequences, and having teammates close to him in the attacking phase of play.

Luis Suarez Atletico Madrid goal

“Suárez has been influential stylistically,” McTear continues. “He’s a player who needs the ball brought to him and then he’ll score goals.” And that’s exactly what Simeone has facilitated, asking his players to control the ball higher up the pitch and rely on the intricate skill of Félix and Suárez to create chances. Five goals in Suárez’s first six La Liga outings for Los Colchoneros would point towards its success.

"With the likes of Costa and Morata before him, they had a lot of other characteristics, but we have been looking for other qualities,” Simeone reflected upon Suárez’s arrival.

“Luis has needed more people close to him, close to where he can hurt the opposition, and that is the team's goal. We had to adapt to play with [Radamel] Falcao, with Costa, and now with Suárez."

This tactical shift is also evident when examining Atlético’s attacking stats in comparison to their last campaign. In 2020-21, they’ve scored more goals, made more progressive runs, attempted more attacking actions, and completed more forward passes per 90 minutes than the season before.

Atletico Madrid stats comparison

The passing stats are particularly impressive, with Atlético averaging over 100 passes more per game since July 2020, in comparison to the first half of the year. “Stats prove that Atlético are more attacking than they have been in previous seasons, while the eye test says the same thing,” McTear concurs.

“They just look to be more expansive and that makes sense because Simeone is putting more attack-minded players on the pitch than ever before. Take the Barcelona win, for example. In the past, Simeone might have gone for four central midfielders across the middle of a 4-4-2 for a game like that. This time he played a back three and crammed attack-minded players into the team together.”

Another possible explanation for the evolution of Cholismo could be the departure of Simeone’s long-serving assistant manager, Germán Burgos. Much like Simeone, Burgos carries a reputation as a defensive disciplinarian but, having left the club last summer, it appears the players have been given greater creative freedom.

That’s especially true of the midfielders, and one player who’s thrived as a result is Marcos Llorente. The Spaniard was signed from city rivals Real Madrid in 2019, and rose to global prominence last season, when he scored a brace at Anfield to dump Liverpool out of the Champions League.

Llorente earned his first international call-up earlier this year and it’s clear Simeone sees him as vital, telling the press: “He can play all positions in the midfield because he has something fundamental: height, speed, an eye for goal, he breaks lines and he works hard.

“We were telling Marcos how important it is for him to develop different skills because it is a virtue that a footballer can play on the wing, as a holding midfielder, an attacking midfielder or as a second forward. He is a virtue. He is a virtue for the player and for the coach that has him.”

Marcos Llorente touch map

McTear agrees: “Llorente definitely fits the description of a key player. He’s not the best player in the team, but he is the most versatile, and one who just never stops running. He can be deployed in almost any position. These days, it’s usually in an attacking one.”

This season Simeone has managed to blend style with substance. His core principles — hard work, organisation, playing with intensity — remain ever present, but the flexibility in formation, emphasis on controlling possession, and affording star players greater creative license is undoubtedly bearing fruit.

It may be too early to call Atléti favourites for the La Liga title, but with the sharp decline of Barcelona and Real Madrid only emboldening Simeone’s men, it’s becoming hard to look past them.

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