Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid
Has the rambunctious Diego Simeone become of a victim of his own success at Atlético Madrid? Rodrigo Jimenez/EPA.

‘Cholismo’ has been Atlético Madrid’s lifeblood for the best part of the last decade. Diego Simeone’s trademark philosophy is intertwined through the DNA of the Spanish capital club. It’s what has sustained them from the moment the Argentine returned to the Vicente Calderon in 2011. Simeone is more than Atleti’s manager; he is their spiritual leader, and that spirit is encapsulated in the values of ‘El Cholo.’

At its essence, though, Cholismo is an underdog approach–one that Atlético Madrid have outgrown. Simeone acknowledged this fact last summer, talking more than once about how his side would need to become a more expansive, forward-thinking outfit. It is, after all, difficult to position yourselves as underdogs while making €126 million signings, as they did with Joao Felix, and playing in a new state-of-the-art €310 million stadium.

This season was always planned to be a transitional one, but the 2019/20 campaign has instead led to an existential crisis for both Simeone and the club he has become inseparable from. Atlético Madrid have generally left behind the conservatism of the last nine years, but have so far failed to replace it with anything meaningful.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has halted soccer across Europe, has left Atleti facing up to the prospect of missing out on Champions League qualification for the first time in seven years. That might seem somewhat unfair given that there are 11 games of the La Liga season still to play, but the Rojiblancos will only have themselves to blame if their campaign continues its pre-hiatus trajectory.

A target on his back

Simeone has even been the subject of whistles and protests from his own supporters, the same supporters who have worshiped at his altar for years. Indeed, there was a point over the winter at which the relationship between the Argentine and the Atlético Madrid support appeared to be on the brink of breaking down.

Since then there has been a greater level of acceptance for the ideological struggle Simeone is going through. Atlético fans now appear willing to be more tolerant, keeping in mind what has been achieved over the last nine years. This is, after all, a club that found itself in Spanish soccer’s second tier as recently as 2002. Simeone is the most influential figure in their history, lifting Atleti from mediocrity to excellence on the strength of his own personality.

And yet another season like the one they have endured in 2019-20 will add weight to the question of whether Simeone has simply reached the end of a cycle. By beating Liverpool at Anfield in early March, Atleti proved that, when the circumstances are right, they can still compete at the very top of the game. Simeone still has elite level quality within his dressing room and their elimination of the defending European champions and progression to the Champions League quarter-finals proved this.

The problem is that these sort of performances have become fewer and further between. Simeone has struggled to get the best out of players that are capable of much better. Their midfield unit of Koke, Saul Ñiguez and Thomas Partey should be among the very best, but only the latter has achieved any sort of consistency this season. What was once Simeone’s defining strength–man management–now comes with a question mark.

Debt from bad transfers means time for a change

Atlético Madrid’s recent record in the transfer market warrants scrutiny. This is a club that has spent around €1 billion over the last six years, without much to show for this staggering investment. The signing of Thomas Lemar, for instance, was a big money mistake with the Frenchman’s future at the Wanda Metropolitano in question after just two disappointing seasons. Kevin Gameiro, Nico Gaitan, Jackson Martinez, Yannick Carrasco, Luciano Vietto and Alessio Cerci also came and went without justifying the money paid to sign them.

This has contributed to an accumulation of €500 million worth of net debt, a figure which gave Atleti no choice but to cut player wages by a drastic 70% for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Even before the pandemic there were questions over the club’s sustainability going forward and whether the belt would have to be tightened.

One wonders if a lack of transfer market freedom might actually help focus Simeone. He is, by trade, a coach. He is at his best when he has a player to work with and mold in his own image - look at how he turned Antoine Griezmann from a flaky, mercurial winger into the archetypal Atlético Madrid centre forward.

Simeone must become that sort of coach again to take Atleti into a new age. He must eliminate all distractions, whether they be financial or transfer market-related, to forge his next great team and prove there is more to him than just one act. ‘Cholismo’ may need to be left behind, but ‘El Cholo’ is needed now more than ever before.

Atletico Madrid Schedule

The weekly La Liga schedule has only been determined for the next two matches. Atlético Madrid will face Athletic Club on Sunday, June 14 at 7:00 am ET in their first match since the coronavirus derailed the La Liga season.

Sun, June 14, 8:00 am ET – Athletic Club vs Atlético Madrid
Wed, June 17, 4:00 pm ET – Osasuna vs Atlético Madrid

TBD – Atlético Madrid vs Valladolid
TBD – Levante vs Atlético Madrid
TBD – Atlético Madrid vs Alavés
TBD – Barcelona vs Atlético Madrid
TBD – Atlético Madrid vs Mallorca
TBD – Celta vs Atlético Madrid
TBD – Atlético Madrid vs Real Betis
TBD – Getafe vs Atlético Madrid
TBD – Atlético Madrid vs Real Sociedad