December 23 marks the 10th anniversary of Diego Simeone’s appointment as the head coach of Atletico Madrid.
The Argentine’s return to his old club altered the modern history of LaLiga, as Atleti firmly established a ‘big three’ in Spain alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona while making waves in Europe.
While their style of play has not always courted admirers, Simeone’s Atletico have won eight trophies – including two LaLiga titles and two Europa Leagues – and twice reached the Champions League final, all on a budget that has never matched that of their two biggest rivals.
In his decade in the capital, Simeone has also worked through a sizeable turnover of players, some of whom have established themselves as modern greats at the club.
Here, Stats Perform attempts to select a best XI from Cholo’s time in charge…
Diego Pablo Simeone.
That’s it. That’s the tweet. pic.twitter.com/5APbwxxIYE
— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) October 2, 2021
Replacing Thibaut Courtois was no easy task, but signing Jan Oblak for €16million has proven to be an outstanding piece of business.
An invaluable part of Atletico’s imperious rearguard, Oblak set a record for the fewest matches needed to record 100 clean sheets in LaLiga last July (182), helping his side to the league title – one of four trophies in his time at the club.
Oblak has won the Zamora Trophy – given to the keeper with the best goals-against-per-game ratio – in four of the past five seasons.
He might have developed at Real Madrid, but Juanfran became one of Atleti’s most dependable and beloved players under Simeone.
A winger as a younger player, Juanfran was a strong attacking outlet as well as being reliable in defence at a time when Atleti’s biggest rivals boasted Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at their peak. It was cruel that he should miss a penalty in the Champions League final shoot-out defeat to Madrid in 2016.
Although he won seven trophies before leaving for Sao Paulo in 2019, Juanfran told supporters at his farewell reception: “You singing my name was better than winning titles.”
Signed the year before Simeone’s arrival, Godin became the rock on which Atleti’s redoubtable defence was built, playing 389 games before departing at the end of 2018-19 – a record for a foreign player at the club.
A winner of eight trophies under Simeone, the Uruguay centre-back was twice included on the Ballon d’Or shortlist as he formed a formidable partnership with Miranda and later compatriot Jose Gimenez. There are some who consider Godin, who became captain, to be the greatest defender ever to play for the club.
There are suggestions he could return to the Wanda Metropolitano should he leave Cagliari in the coming weeks.
Gimenez had to wait for his chance, linking up with Atletico for the title-winning 2013-14 season as an 18-year-old and finding Miranda blocking his path. However, the veteran soon moved on to Inter and was scarcely missed.
Gimenez, who remains at Atleti and is still only 26, had the benefit of playing alongside Godin at international level, quickly forging a strong partnership after his 2013 Uruguay debut. At international level, he may well be the man to pass his colleague’s record caps haul.
Simeone’s latest stalwart has already continued his fine performances at club level beyond Godin’s career, named as one of four captains immediately after the older man’s departure. Only hamstring injuries have slowed Gimenez to this point, but he has plenty of time left to add to his legacy.
Atletico’s outstanding 2013-14 season attracted the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs – or at least one of them. Chelsea recalled Courtois and returned to sign two more title-winning stars: Filipe Luis and Diego Costa.
Both men eventually returned to Simeone’s ranks, but Filipe Luis’ Premier League move was particularly underwhelming. Jose Mourinho’s Stamford Bridge rebuild found room for one of Europe’s outstanding full-backs only as a back-up, with the Brazil international restricted to 939 league minutes – merely the 16th-most in that triumphant Chelsea side.
Atleti were only too happy to welcome Filipe Luis back the following year, installing him again as a regular in Simeone’s sturdy defence.
Koke made his Atletico debut more than two years prior to Simeone’s appointment and is still at the club as captain, aged only 29. He may even break Adelardo Rodriguez’s club appearance record of 551 before the end of the season, now 30 short.
Under Simeone alone, Koke has turned out on 486 occasions, by far the most of any Atleti player, as he has had a big hand in the coach’s various successes.
The midfielder emerged too late to contribute to Spain’s international titles between 2008 and 2012 but was instead identified as Xavi’s successor by the man himself. “An extraordinary footballer,” according to a man who knows a thing or two about such players, Koke has consistently delivered at club level.
On this day in 2009, Koke made his Atleti debut…
The rest is history pic.twitter.com/g2ZGTwKa8n
— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) September 19, 2021
A Marca column this year identified two potential successors to Simeone, two former players who are “pure Atletico Madrid”. Fernando Torres is one; Gabi is the other.
Madrid-born Gabi epitomised Simeone’s side with his dogged approach, having been selected as captain by the coach he played alongside in his first spell at the club.
“We weren’t the best technically, but we were the best in terms of our belief,” Gabi reflected of an Atleti stint that included six major honours – a description that fits both iconic player and team.
Probably the most surprising choice in this XI, Llorente has undoubtedly proven himself an invaluable asset to Simeone since his move across the city in 2019.
Nominally a holding midfielder, the Spain international has been deployed to great effect in a more attacking role, not least in scoring twice at Anfield to knock Liverpool out of the 2019-20 Champions League.
Llorente has also filled in at full-back, that versatility earning him a starting spot on the right-hand side of Luis Enrique’s line-up at Euro 2020. There are few players more accomplished at adopting different roles in Simeone’s demanding set-up.
His ‘Decision’ about staying at Atletico in 2018 – and then promptly signing for Barcelona anyway a year later – upset plenty of Atletico fans, but there is little doubt about Griezmann’s contribution to Simeone’s success.
Griezmann has scored 140 goals and provided 148 assists for Atletico; since Simeone took charge, the next highest on the list for direct goal involvements is Koke on 137. And Griezmann was not even an Atletico player for the first two and a half years of the Cholo era.
The France international has twice come third in the Ballon d’Or standings while playing for Atleti, in 2016 and then 2018. Had it not been for a costly penalty miss in the Champions League final five years ago, he could well have got his hands on the prize.
Fiery and formidable, Costa was the archetypal Simeone striker, and a player at the heart of one of the club’s greatest modern seasons.
Initially a back-up to Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan, and having battled a knee injury in 2011, Costa became an established player in the side in 2012-13, scoring in the Copa del Rey final win over Real Madrid.
Then, in 2013-14, he scored 27 LaLiga goals as Atleti claimed an incredible title triumph, and a further eight in nine games to propel them to the Champions League final. Simeone’s attempt to rush him back from a hamstring injury for that game backfired, though: he lasted eight minutes of the match, which Atleti lost 4-1 after extra time.
Say what, Diego?