Diego Simeone put on an Argentina jersey under his familiar black suit. They are the two favourite outfits of his professional career. He played for Argentina more than 100 times. As a coach, he has made the dark jacket and trousers his touchline trademark through most of the 599 matches he has been in charge of Atletico Madrid.
Simeone had chosen his mix-and-match attire for a special occasion, Sunday’s trip for Qatar to the World Cup final. The patriot in him would finish the night delighted. He was there as a proud manager, too. Four Atletico players were among the finalists as Argentina took on France.
No club was better represented, either, among the gold-medallists. Simeone will greet Rodrigo de Paul, Nehuel Molina and Angel Correa with hearty backslaps when they return to training in Madrid in the coming days. He will commiserate with Antoine Griezmann, so dynamic for France in their run to a final they lost only on penalties.
Griezmann, at least, already has a World Cup medal: he was one of the three Atletico employees who were part of France’s winning squad in 2018.
That in itself is a remarkable achievement. That’s two successive World Cups in which no club had, under contract, more players in the winning squad than Atletico. It’s a measure of Simeone’s transforming effect over the last decade.
When Spain, where Atletico are the third biggest club, won the 2010 World Cup, they had no Atletico players involved; when Simeone took over Atletico following year, the club were not the sort of institution potential world champions wanted to join. They sat 10th in La Liga, and had just been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by third-tier Albacete.
As Simeone on Wednesday prepared his available Atletico players for the resumption of the domestic season, a Copa del Rey tie away at fourth-tier Arenteiro in Galicia, he was encouraged to reflect on his epoch-shaping influence.
World Cup final - player ratings
He has arrived at significant milestones in his time as elite football’s longest-serving boss. It was exactly 11 years ago that he agreed to take the job. On Thursday, he will be in charge of Atletico - who on his watch have won La Liga twice, claimed a pair of Europa League titles and a Spanish Cup, as well as reaching two Champions League finals - for the 600th time.
But the 11-year anniversary is hardly a peak moment. His Spanish champions of 2020-21 are currently outside the top four of La Liga, 13 points off the top. They finished bottom of their Champions League group.
The impressive fact and figures of the Simeone era also place an unforgiving lens on the here-and-now. His overall win percentage at Atletico is close to 60 per cent; this season it has dipped to under 43 per cent, lower than any of his previous campaigns. In 2022-23, Atletico are averaging 1.33 goals per game; even if Simeone’s time in charge has been largely characterised by defensive solidity, goals have never been scored at a lower rate than over the past four months.
And that’s with a choice of attacking personnel as gifted as in any Simeone squad from the past. Joao Felix, Griezmann and Alvaro Morata have each commanded net transfer fees over €100m in their careers.
Matheus Cunha, the 23-year-old Brazil striker, arrived for €30m in the summer to add more firepower. Cunha was yesterday in advanced negotiations to join Wolverhampton Wanderers, his Atletico move deemed a disappointment. It is a rare case of Simeone’s tutelage not adding value to a player, although to look over some individual performances in Qatar is to wonder if Simeone is coaxing as much from some of his players as their national managers can.
Take Joao Felix, still only 23, but restless. He appeared to aim a dig at his Atletico role when, after shining for Portugal, he said: “There’s difference with playing here and at the club - when conditions are more favourable, things go better.” Griezmann, a long-term Simeone ally, was deployed brilliantly in a midfield position for France, revealing assets previously undiscovered at Atletico. De Paul galvanised Argentina through the later stages of the World Cup; this season, Simeone has named De Paul on the bench as often as in the starting XI.
“Nobody has doubts about Simeone, there’s no grounds to doubt him,” insisted the Atletico president, Enrique Cerezo, as he marked the anniversary of an inspired managerial appointment. But whether Simeone is still inspiring, still patrolling the touchline in his dark suit next December, marking 12 years in charge, likely depends on an uptick in form in early 2023.
Atletico are keeping tabs on alternatives. Luis Enrique, who stepped down as Spain coach after the World Cup, would be high on the shortlist of possible successors.
Simeone has never imagined he would not, one day, move on. He would relish coaching Argentina. But as of last Sunday, when unsung Lionel Scaloni guided the country to the greatest prize in football, there is clearly no imminent vacancy there.