Simeone nears a decade of excellence at Atletico but now is not the time to celebrate

Manager has enjoyed immense success but La Liga defending champions are struggling to regain their form

On Wednesday, it will be exactly 10 years since Atletico Madrid sacked Gregorio Manzano as their head coach. They were 10th in the 20-club top division of Spanish football, and had just lost a Cup tie against lower-league opposition.

Manzano, into his fifth month in charge, had seen it coming mainly because this was Atletico - notorious for their rapid turnover of coaches for the previous 20 years. Manzano had been in the job before, and by lasting a full season in his first stint, endured longer than many. In the 10 years between 2001 and his second departure, Atletico had changed their head coach nine times.

That’s one reason to gasp in awe at the anniversary that comes up on Thursday. It will be a decade since Diego Simeone, then 41, was announced as Manzano’s successor in that bleak Atletico winter of 2011. Simeone is still there, the absolute architect of the stunning, sustained rise of a club that used to be mocked for its instability.

Ten years before Simeone was appointed, wise to the ways of the club from two periods there as a rugged midfielder, Atletico were in the second division. In his 10 years, they have won La Liga twice, the Europa League twice and reached two Champions League finals that they were close to snatching from Real Madrid.

These achievements would justify a huge anniversary party in his honour, but that would require asking his permission. His authority at the club has grown to where it is greater than of any executive, certainly any player. And right now, Simeone, gruffly, would point out this is not exactly fiesta time at La Liga’s defending champions.

Seven months on from the suspense-laden, last-day capture of the Spain league title, Atletico trail leaders Real Madrid by 14 points. Their defeat at second-placed Sevilla at the weekend set a precedent unknown in the 'Decade of Diego'. It was a third league loss on the trot. His worst runs as Atletico coach had never before numbered more than two successive defeats.

In Europe, another unfortunate sequence: three of the last four Champions League matches ended with Atletico down to 10 men. Simeone’s men eventually wrestled their way, even after losing twice to Liverpool and at home to AC Milan, into the last 16, where they will face Manchester United. But it was touch and go for most of their final, ill-tempered fixture against Porto.

Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak has been conceding an uncharacteristic number of goals this season. Getty Images

The warrior aspect of that group-stage campaign at least reminded of a core feature in Simeone’s reshaping of a club that was brittle and neurotic when he took over. He made them tough, combative, resilient - qualities valued above any aesthetic flourishes on the hard-working road mapped out by the inspirational Argentine with a full-throttle touchline presence. His best Atletico teams trademarked the smash-and-grab victory, with breakaway goals and set-piece ambushes, allied to a monumental ability to defend for long periods in deep-set lines and trust in their brilliant goalkeepers.

But the finest of those, Jan Oblak, suddenly looks more vulnerable, and far less protected than he has been used to. In 17 Liga matches so far in 2021-22, Atletico have let in 20 goals; in the whole of 2020-21 - 38 games - they conceded 25. In seven years at Atletico, Oblak has never reached this stage of a season averaging more than a goal-per-game against him.

At the other end of the pitch, Luis Suarez, whose goals fired the title charge after Barcelona let him leave almost for free last year, is out of form. And on the evidence of the 2-1 defeat at Sevilla, disgruntled with Simeone. Suarez directed some x-rated words at the coach when he was substituted at the weekend.

Luis Suarez, struggling for form and goals, was not happy at being substituted against Sevilla. Reuters

There is enough attacking talent, on which more has been invested than at any time in Simeone’s reign, that Atletico should not be dependent on Suarez’s gumption and goals. But the best ways of combining the combined creative potential of Antoine Griezmann, Joao Felix, Thomas Lemar, and Yannick Carrasco seem elusive.

“I take responsibility,” said Simeone of a run that has left Atletico outside the top four as they approach their last Liga match - at Granada on Wednesday - of 2021. “It’s a tough time, because results are going against us.”

As for the anniversary, he may not be in a party mood, but neither he nor his employers are close to the point of asking ‘How long is too long?’ of a coach’s reign. “I feel as optimistic as I did on my very first day,” Simeone insists. “I’m calm and have every confidence in this squad.”

But he left no doubt who is the boss at Atletico. “If anybody is not feeling up to the challenge,” he warned, “they should come and say so.”

Updated: December 21st 2021, 3:52 AM