And so the myth grows. Unable to whip the crowd into baying dervishes, Diego Simeone did the same to himself and gave a ‘friendly’ slap to one of his own Atleti staff for not getting the late substitution in motion before Bayern took their injury-time throw.
He needn’t have worried. Tonight he’ll sit in his Madrid home and watch to see who his opponents will be in the Champions League final at the end of this month. Many, myself included, wouldn’t mind if it were his last match in charge of the Rojiblancos before taking charge at The Emirates, knowing full well it won’t be.
There’s always next season, eh?
And in fairly equal measure, there are those who find that outcome an abhorrence. For them, even though Jose Mourinho seems likely to return to the Premier League as Manchester United manager, Simeone is the devil incarnate.
His Atletico Madrid team is the antithesis of how Arsène convinced them football, without exception, should be played. Trophies won by lesser methods are diminished, their triumph stained by a puritanical streak and blind faith in a manager whose methods are, it is increasingly apparent, failing.
Simeone, of course, has a record since taking over at the Vincente Calderon, which makes Arsène’s pale by comparison in the same timeframe. He’s landed the title, domestic cup, equivalent of the Community Shield, Europa League and got his club to two Champions League finals in three years. He may land the title this season as well although Barcelona’s run-in leaves them firmly in the driving seat.
Every club has its purple patch and after the madness of Jesus Gil, who can deny that Atletico aren’t due some good times.
In the transfer market, his philosophy has been guided by the same principles that govern Arsenal. Atletico are big spenders but big sellers as well; the net spend in his time in charge has never been more than £20m in one season, not window, season.
Are you still arguing that Arsenal wouldn’t consider him?
Fundamentally, the issue is two-fold. First and foremost, people would like him to replace Arsène and that’s the kiss of death. The equivalent of a pirate’s black spot. To some, their puritanical zeal refuses to countenance a team which plays the ‘Simeone Way’. A team which in 36 games has scored 60 goals and conceded just 16. So that’s scored 1 more than Arsenal and conceded 18 less.
Before you claim it’s a fluke, Arsenal have only outscored Atletico twice in the four full seasons Simeone has been in charge. And always conceded more.
I wouldn’t particularly argue if someone said those statistics are apples and pears, to be honest. Comparisons of league is always subjective but usually that comes about because it runs contrary to the narrative someone is trying to put forward, when they realise a plank of their argument doesn’t stand scrutiny. So I thought I’d get in there first.
But the Champions League is another matter. Wenger’s phenomenal record of qualification isn’t disputed but whether its any sort of sporting achievement, certainly in the last decade, is open to debate. Since Paris, Arsenal have made the semi-finals once and the last eight, twice. The rest? Good or mediocre opposition has dumped us out with relentless monotony.
This season is particularly uncomfortable. Arsenal trailed Bayern 3 – 5 over the two group matches whilst Barcelona also put five past Arsenal on aggregate. Atletico knocked both those sides out. Not by expansive, all-conquering football but by outplaying both teams at home and doggedly defending away.
The performance is the Camp Nou was particularly instructive in Simeone’s ways. Reduced through the stupidity of his striker, they did not cave or crumble in the face of Barcelona’s remorseless pursuit but defended doggedly, illegally and with some luck. But without fear, without capitulating and with a sense of togetherness and purpose, the like of which I can’t remember the last time an Arsenal side displayed.
And that’s really the point. Like everything in football tactics, there are nuances and tweaks but at their core, Arsenal have two tactics. The stereotypical passing game and rope-a-dope. Atletico do the same but it’s always based on strong defence. They can pass the ball but Simeone isn’t worried by not having the lion’s share of possession. With good reason; Arsenal have shown with alarming frequency the futility of ball-hogging.
But the biggest advantage that Atletico have is the adaptability of their game. It’s a smooth transition between the two in Europe and Arsenal don’t do that well. Even with a quick equaliser in Munich, I don’t think the outcome would have been any different. We were too defensively loose to keep the score down. Atletico came under as, if not more, intense pressure and stood firm.
You could argue quite rightly that you find Atletico boring to watch. It’s subjective and open to counter-argument. Sometimes, more frequently than not this season, Arsenal are as dull as dishwasher with relentless and meandering passes. Until Arsène finds a directness and purpose to the core home games, a way of bypassing the massed ranks of visiting defences, we will remain trapped in the first circle of footballing hell.
It’s a new way of thinking and even though there’s an acceptance that Arsène’s era is drawing to a close, there’s a widespread reluctance to countenance the notion that the football post-Wenger is going to be different. It isn’t in the club’s best interests to appoint Wenger-lite as a successor. It is doomed to fail; the role needs a strong personality to carry the players through, not mollycoddle them but to imbue strength and a sense of purpose.
If players don’t like it, there is a door marked ‘Do One’ through which they are quite welcome to walk.
The new man won’t rip his structures immediately to pieces. He might on the playing side for the first team, he may change the style from youth to seniors but the actual club itself will most likely remain intact. He might want a different way of working but that’s life. New brooms and all that.
At the moment, Diego Simeone is flavour of the month. Give it a season and someone else will pop up, I’m sure. But if you want to know what is possible, look at the Spanish capital. Atletico aren’t dissimilar to Arsenal in their stature in the national game but right now, they are achieving more.
And that is the lesson to be learned.