Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone and Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp are two managers whose styles of playing football are diametrically opposed to each other’s. But Ismail Farooq thinks the two modern masters of the game have a lot in common. In this article, he explains how.
Two major events surrounding Liverpool Football Club took place this past week. One, Liverpool lost a game of football. It was their first since the loss to Napoli on 18th September 2019 (I am excluding the Carabao Cup defeat to Aston Villa for obvious purposes). And two, they failed to register a single shot on target for only the second time since Jurgen Klopp took over as manager in October 2015.
The team that caused both these rare events? Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.
Naturally, with Liverpool fans not used to losing games of football and being stifled like this, most of them did not know how to react after Tuesday night’s defeat. Many vented their frustration at Polish referee Szymon Marciniak, who by all accounts had a poor performance. A group of fans also took their irritation to the next level by attacking Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone and his “anti-football” approach.
This allegation against Simeone couldn’t be further from the truth. For starters, this was no hit-and-run like the one Mourinho’s Spurs side inflicted on Manchester City recently. It wasn’t a backs-against-the-wall and putting-bodies-on-the-line performance from Atletico. Instead, it was a well-calculated and assured defensive display.
Secondly, there is no one way to play football. There is no morality at work in this sport; you are not “supposed” to play with a certain style or in a certain manner. And this is coming from someone who is in love with possession football and principles of positional play.
Just like an attacking performance full of slick, intricate passing and smooth build-up is appreciated, a defensive game-plan that suffocates the space and successfully limits the best attack in world football to zero shots on target should also be praised and given its due.
We should all appreciate the manager’s tactical planning and attention to detail, along with the organisation, discipline and concentration required by the team to execute it at such a high level. Liverpool fans should be the first to hold their hands up and admit they were bested by a better performance on the night. Obviously, part of the defeat was down to Liverpool’s lack of quality in the final third, but Atletico made the game such that Liverpool had to be nearly perfect in and around the box in order to score.
Simeone and Atletico got off to the best possible start, and then for 85 minutes (plus stoppage time), they did what they do best: defend a one-goal lead in a knockout game. No matter what their form is like or what problems they are going through, a one-goal lead for Atletico in a knockout game is worth a two-goal or even a three-goal lead for other sides. That is precisely why Liverpool will need an Anfield performance like the one they put in against Barcelona last season in order to safely go through. But I digress.
All this “anti-football” nonsense targeted towards Simeone seems even weirder to me considering how much the Argentine has in common with Jurgen Klopp. I understand that differences in perception exist between the two; one is seen as this happy, optimistic manager who wants to play fair, while the other, with his black suits, shirts and ties, is considered a certifiable cynic who has Machiavelli’s The Prince on his bedside table. And there are good reasons for these perceptions.
But no matter how much their methods might differ, the fundamental principles underpinning their management and coaching styles are quite similar. Pressing, intensity, compactness and preferring training over transfers. These four concepts are prevalent throughout the careers of Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp. Everyone knows Klopp’s obsession with “gegenpressing” and causing turnovers high up the pitch, but Simeone isn’t that different in this regard.
Despite being one of the top three teams in La Liga, which means they have most of the ball and most of the attacking onus in the majority of league games, Atletico have still posted above average pressing numbers over the years. From 2014-15 to 2018-19, they had a PPDA (passes per defensive action) number under 9.0 (source: Understat). Since Simeone became their manager, there has been only one season, 2018-19, in which their PPDA number rose above 10.0 (source: Understat).
Their defensive intensity is also incredibly high, much like Klopp’s sides. In 2013-14, the year Atletico won La Liga under Simeone, they were averaging over 24 tackles and allowing less than 9 shots per game, on average (source: WhoScored). The league average for tackles per game was 20.1 while they were joint-best for shots conceded per game.
Both managers strongly believe in the “power of supporters” and spend much of their time saying and doing things to harness that power. They realise the impact it has on players and the team’s performances. Their charisma and energy on the touchline has a huge impact on fans and the overall atmosphere, which in turn transmits to the players on the pitch. There are numerous videos of Klopp fist-pumping the Kop and of Simeone dancing like a cheerleader while facing the Atletico fans behind him.
You only had to take one look at the game on Tuesday to recognise what Simeone was doing. He had set out his team to execute a plan, but for himself, he had an entirely different one, which he also executed perfectly.
It may have seemed like random chaotic movement from a man who couldn’t control himself, but make no mistake, it was the result of detailed choreography and infinite practice. For most of the game, Simeone was facing the crowd, jumping up and down, beckoning them to move, shout and cheer their team on as much as they could. They were responding in kind; they got louder and louder and their scarves got waved quicker and quicker. And on the pitch, the Atletico players were getting more and more confident.
The biggest similarity between Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone is one that has underpinned so much of their success and even their tactics, to an extent. It is that they know, better than almost anyone, how to beat better teams with better players. There are so many overlaps between Klopp’s time at Dortmund and Simeone’s initial years at Atletico Madrid.
At the time of their appointments, both clubs were massive underdogs to achieve Champions League status, let alone win the league. Through incessant work on the training pitch, creation of a collaborative-yet-intense culture, and smart-but-modest recruitment, they broke the systems in Spain and Germany. Klopp broke Bayern’s stranglehold as the establishment’s club to win two successive Bundesliga titles. Simeone won La Liga and broke the Barca-Real duopoly in Spain in 2013-14 for the first time since 2003-04, when Rafa Benitez’s Valencia became champions.
Simeone and Klopp teams never let opponents settle. They harass, harry and hurry the opposition into making mistakes and playing under relentless pressure. This is how even the best teams in the world end up getting flustered and unable to play their regular game. In fact, one of the first things Klopp said as Liverpool manager was, “If opponents are better you have to bring them to your level and then you can kill every team.” Later on, in his Liverpool reign, he also said, “I want to beat the best, not be the best.”
Saying it is one thing, but doing it quite another. To make matters even more difficult, both Klopp and Simeone had to contend with their best players getting snapped up by bigger and richer clubs. Bayern regularly laid siege to Dortmund, because what better way to make sure you win the league than to buy the best players from the previous title winners and your main rivals? Mario Gotze, Robert Lewandowski and Matts Hummels all went from Dortmund to Bayern. Nuri Sahin, who was the midfield lynchpin of Klopp’s first title-winning season, was bought by Real Madrid. Shinji Kagawa went to Manchester United.
For Simeone, his core group of players like Godin, Gabi, Koke, and Saul have been more loyal, but there were still major ones that have departed over the years. Diego Costa to Chelsea, Aguero to Manchester City, De Gea to Manchester United, Diego Forlan to Inter Milan, Falcao to Monaco, and Griezmann to Barcelona – these have all occurred during Simeone’s time at Atletico Madrid. Simeone, and Klopp at Dortmund, responded by buying players of similar qualities who fit in the system but who were cheaper. The likes of Pierre-Emerik Aubameyang, Ilkay Gundogan, Jan Oblak, Diego Costa, and Marco Reus were all such players.
Unfortunately, much like Klopp’s Dortmund, there are signs that Atletico are slowing down under Simeone and it might be time for a change. But, no matter what happens, they still have the uncanny ability to pull off a Simeone masterclass, a phrase whose meaning we are all fully aware of.