This is the fifth in a five part series examining the units which will be pitted against each other on May 24. The previous part in the series focused on the offenses.
I generally find the impact of coaches and managers to be overblown, at least in this sport. I can see the value of them in American football, for example, because they're constantly influencing the game through their play-calling and strategic design. However, in the footy that we discuss daily on this site I'm just not overly into assigning a ton of credit, or blame, to the managers other than setting the lineup and giving a basic outline of what they want the players to do on the pitch.
That was until this season. Say what you will about each man, but there is no doubt that Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone have had an instant impact on their respective clubs, Carlo in his first year as manager of Real Madrid and Simeone in his third year with Atletico Madrid.
Simeone's managerial career started out at Racing in Argentina's Primera División which is also where his playing career ended. Though his results were mixed, they were good enough to get him a job at Estudiantes where he won them their first league title in over two decades and where he managed for two seasons before moving on to River Plate. He won the Clausura title with River but a bad stretch led to his resignation and taking over at San Lorenzo, which also led to poor results and criticism. A stint at Catania followed where he helped them avoid relegation before returning for a second helping at Racing. A solid year at Racing led to Atleti calling and the rest is history. His first season yielded two titles, the Europa League beating Bilbao and the Super Cup where Atleti beat Chelsea. His second season saw Atleti finish in the third in the league and a win against Real Madrid in a game which we'll not speak of. This season saw Atleti surge to the Champions League final and a finish at the top of the league without a single loss to either Real Madrid or Barcelona in La Liga.
So how much of this success should we credit to Simeone? After all, he has a top-3 (or higher depending on who you ask) goalkeeper tending the net, two defenders in Luis and Miranda who could make the jump to bigger clubs, a young playmaking superstar in Koke and a top-10 striker in Diego Costa. He also had Radamel Falcao at his disposal for two seasons and it's not as if he didn't make a huge impact prior to his move to Monaco.
That being said, Atletico Madrid has completely taken the personality of Simeone and are absolutely feeding off of it. One look on the sidelines during the games and you can see how animated the man is. Often gesticulating and jacking up the crowd, the guy brings a youthful exuberance to proceedings and his players thrive off of it as they see him as one of them. He's totally sold the idea of the underdog to his players, that they're defying all odds and obstacles through team spirit, grit and determination. Whether or not you believe that (I don't, I find it to be a media narrative), is besides the point, he's got all the Colchoneros excited like never before.
His team's style is to sit back and soak up pressure. Cut off the middle of the pitch due to physical congestion and drive the opposition out wide where they can be aggressively pressed. No area of the pitch is safe for the opposition as he requires constant pressure from all 10 outfield players, from the defenders to the strikers harassing up high. However, this obviously successful plan isn't without its weak points. Quick passing is the key to unlocking such pressure and double-teams which leave other players open, Atleti's players aren't as good with the ball as they are without it and their aggressive and in your face style leads to a high number of fouls and cardings. The last point could be important as they're often carded not only for hard fouls, but unprofessional and diving ones as well and as Real has two free kick specialists it could be a way to sneak by a key goal. Additionally, if Atleti spend the entire game chasing the ball around their high intensity style could betray them as fatigue will set in. RM has injury issues, of course, but Atleti have been the ones strenuously competing for the league up until the last day including a grueling match against Barcelona last weekend.
While Simeone's star is certainly on the rise, his list of accomplishments pale in comparison to all the Eyebrow's résumé. In short: an Intertoto Cup, a Serie A title, Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italiana, two Champions League titles (I refuse to bring up the Istanbul heartbreak), two Super Cups, a Club World Cup, a Premier League title, FA Cup title, Community Shield, a Ligue 1 title and a Copa Del Rey title against Barcelona this season. Those are only his team's awards, I haven't even touched on the individual managerial awards or even the ones from his playing days with arguably the finest side of footballers ever put together in the late 1980s AC Milan squad which won consecutive European Cups in 1989-1990.
Carlo has definitely had a calming effect on the club and players following Jose Mourinho's departure. Whether or not that's your kind of thing is up to you, but the players speak highly of the locker room atmosphere and the infighting has certainly decreased, if not died down altogether. The fact that he's muzzled Pepe and Sergio Ramos to the extent that he has is a relief to many Real Madrid fans. You won't see Carlo jumping up and down on the sidelines the way Simeone does, the most excited we've seen Carlo was the last goal against Bayern but otherwise he's just relaxing in his seat next to Zizou dreaming of his next bowl of pasta and/or cigarette. Humorous and sharp-witted, the man has certainly done his job in keeping Real in the hunt for all three titles (and potentially winning two).
Stylistically, Ancelotti has a diverse selection of formations to choose from. Originally criticized for his defensive tactics at Milan, he transformed the club into a free-flowing offensive force and was one of the principal users of the 4-3-2-1 "Christmas Tree" formation. At Madrid, we've seen him adopt three approaches. Initially, the 4-2-3-1 was his favored approach before Sami Khedira went down with injury and Angel di maria was introduced into a deeper role in the 4-3-3. Facing Barcelona and Bayern with injured players and two possession monsters ahead of them, Carlo and his teams shifted into a more defensive-minded countering 4-4-2 look which stifled the two giants and shored up RM's defensive vulnerabilities. However, sometimes his in-game decisions can leave the fans wanting for me. His substitutions are open to question as sometimes he seems to go into a more conservative approach and he brings on fresh players in too late into the game. Additionally, there have been questions about his man management and coaches off the pitch as injuries have started to pile up.
I'm not really a huge fan of Simeone, the way his team plays, his fans or the media narrative building around them, but I can certainly respect the impact he's had on that entire organization. He and his players are both incredibly hard working and no one can accuse them of taking anything for granted, that's something to be admired. He and Atleti seem like a perfect fit for each other.
Initially, I was skeptical of Carlo coming in. Not because of anything he has or hasn't done in the past, but more because I'm an open fan of Jose Mourinho. However, Carlo has won me over. He's shown a good tactical acumen over the course of the season, if not always in-game, and has proven to be a cup specialist. Given the number of changes in the past offseason and how he's navigated them, I think the future is bright with him at the helm and I think this season could be seen as a positive stepping stone going forward.
Edge: Simeone is an absolutely fantastic motivator who gets the best out of his players, but Carlo's experience and calmness are comforting me in this absurdly stressful time. I have to give it to Carlo simply because he's been here before.
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