The €400-plus million in debt club had sold its best players — Sergio Aguero, David De Gea, Diego Forlan — the summer before. The team sat 10th in the Primera Division table.
They had recently been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by third tier Albacete. At his unveiling the teak-tough Argentinian did not talk directly about winning trophies or even playing beautiful football, but he did lay out to everyone exactly what he planned to do.
“We need to return to the values which have brought glory to this club,” Simeone said then. “We must be a warrior-like team. I want an aggressive, strong, fast, counter-attacking team. That is what Atletico’s fans have always loved.”
Regular Atleti-watchers were sceptical, but Simeone quickly instilled this ‘warrior spirit’ into his side. He quickly changed the starting 11 completely, giving previous squad players such as Gabi, Juanfran and Miranda key starting roles. Talented but until then reckless players like Arda Turan, Diego Godin, Tiago and Filipe Luis were forced to knuckle down and work hard. Youngsters Thibaut Courtois, Mario Suarez and Koke were given responsibility and responded.
Without adding any big new names, Atletico finished fifth and won the Europa League title that season. They then progressed again last season, moving up to third in the Primera Division and beat Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final at their richer neighbours’ Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. They now host Barcelona tonight as co-leaders of the Primera Division, with both teams having taken a phenomenal 49 points from their first 18 games of the season.
Given the unbalanced nature of Spanish football, this tally is maybe par for the course for Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and company. But for Atletico it is truly astonishing — even more so as the club’s finances dictated that playmaker Radamel Falcao was sold in the summer.
Simeone has somehow got his bunch of misfits and kids to go toe-to-toe with one of the best club sides ever put together.
And he has done it, as he regularly intones, by just going game by game, taking it step by step.
Atletico do not have any superstars, but they have a system which they truly believe in. It allows players previously thought of as average or inconsistent to shine week in and week out.
They are so well organised, well drilled, and cover so well for each other, that they look much better players than they are. Outside this system these players can struggle (for example full-backs Juanfran Torres and Filipe Luis with Spain and Brazil) but inside it they can match anyone.
“We have tremendous confidence,” Filipe said this week. “It has been tough going in our last few games, but we have come through by being a team. Nobody is ahead of anyone else. The collective comes before the individual.
“Madrid or Barcelona, in the end, when they have problems, a player with his individual quality sorts it out. We have Diego [Costa] but we see ourselves as a team.”
Costa’s example is fitting. When Simeone arrived he was on loan at Rayo Vallecano — a fourth loan move in five seasons, and seen mainly as a temperamental battering ram who would never make a top striker.
But the Brazil-born player has 19 goals in his first 18 La Liga games this season (bettering Falcao’s record) and is playing so well that world champions Spain have persuaded him to play for them.
Despite his new status as one of world football’s most sought after strikers, Costa said on Thursday he was fine with playing on the wing against Barca, doing the same job of shutting down Jordi Alba which worked so well when the teams met in the Spanish Supercopa earlier in the season.
“The boss always looks for the best for the team, and if he puts me there I will give my all,” Costa said.We must play as a team.”
Despite all this Barca remain favourites for tonight’s game, and for the title. Bookies and pundits agree that the Catalan side’s greater class and tiki-taka style will win out in the end. But this does not worry Simeone — or the Atletico players.
They have gone from losing to Albacete to challenging Barca and Bayern in just two years. Win or lose tonight the steps taken by Diego Simeone at Atletico rank with anything done in football in recent years.