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Hiko Seijuro takes a look at what is an unlikely connection between Diego Simeone and Pep Guardiola.
Pep Guardiola has been the recipient of much adulation and admiration over the past few years as he has had an unreal coaching career so far, sweeping up 22 trophies in just seven years as a top flight manager. On the other side of Spain, Diego “Cholo” Simeone has also built a well oiled machine in Atletico Madrid and are dominating the Spanish capital in the presence of their more illustrious neighbours while still challenging for top honours domestically and in Europe.
Guardiola’s teams have traditionally been known to play free flowing attacking football from start to finish, score lots of goals and dominate the opposition with suffocating levels of ball possession; Simeone’s team on the other hand are (at least on the surface) the exact opposite of that description; the yin to Guardiola’s yang if you will.
However, every manager and for that matter even every fan has his ideas about how the beautiful game should be played and this constitutes his “philosophy”. It is in this respect that Pep and Diego are alike as their styles share very similar principles that has made each one of them successful in his own right.
To the average football fan, football can be divided into attacking and defending and these are viewed as two distinct aspects of the game; however, to coaches such as Simeone and Guardiola, the offensive and defensive aspects of the game cannot be separated as they are intrinsically linked. So when Simeone prioritises his half of the pitch and shows an overt willingness to play there it is because he feels his attack can be improved by such a tactic and when Pep insists on playing in the opponents half at all times, it is because he feels that his defense can be improved by so doing. Which is why Simeone isn’t afraid to press high up the pitch when he feels it is the best course of action and Pep isn’t also afraid to occupy a deeper position on the pitch when the need calls for it a case in point being the Manchester derby where City dropped back a few yards to better deal with the long balls that United were putting in.
“Provoke the proximity of the maximum number of opposition players around the ball. Recuperate the ball imminently when lost in spaces where we are united. Divide the play of rival team while not dissociating ours. All with the idea of having awareness of, during the prices of attacking, I am generating the futures conditions defensively or vise versa.”
– Oscar Moreno
The first and probably most obvious similarity between these two men is their work ethic and the levels of effort that they demand from their players.
“I can forgive if the players cannot get it right, but I won’t forgive them if they don’t try” – Pep Guardiola
Both managers require astronomical levels of effort from their players both in training and on the pitch with their teams regularly outrunning their opponents. A case in point being Manchester City who have been outrun only by Tottenham in their league games this season, a game they eventually lost two nil. The same can be said for Simeone’s Atletico as the players give 110% every single game. It is quite common to see the Atletico centre forwards deep in their own half if the team is under pressure and immediately sprinting forward on the counter when they do get the ball showing impressive levels of commitment and energy.
Guardiola is similarly tasking of his players with absolute levels of fitness, commitment and hardwork required by the Catalan.
“In my experience, when you train like a beast then you play like a beast”.
Thierry Henry once said that during training sessions at Barcelona you had to do everything while running even if you wanted a drink of water. It seems to some that Pep has had his success based primarily around the genius of peerless footballers available at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich (Messi, Xavi, Iniesta Muller, Lewandowsk, e.t.c); however, talent alone is never enough and needs amazing levels of hardwork for such players to reach the heights that their talent can take them and Pep certainly demanded that from them.
Both of these managers have been heavily influenced by Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa and if there’s one thing they both gained from him, it’s an unflinching conviction of their ideals regardless of criticism and results.
“A man with new ideas is a mad man until his ideas triumph” – Marcelo Bielsa
“It’s irrelevant whether my way is the best way. But it is my way” – Pep Guardiola
“We’re a tough team, strong, intense, powerful at counter attacking. I don’t want this to ever change. We don’t know how to play any other way. Should we change our style, it would be disastrous” – Diego Simeone
Both of these managers have faced criticism when things did not all go their way; however, they have stuck to their guns with the absolute conviction that their style is what will bring them success. In fact, after losing 4:0 to Barcelona recently Pep said he would rather return home than change the way he plays. That is conviction.
What perhaps set these two managers apart from their contemporaries is their high level of tactical adaptability. Both of them are constantly chopping and changing from match to match and sometimes even within games to find solutions to whatever the opponent is doing at the time.
Most people readily associate Atletico Madrid with the 4-4-2 formation and even though that is they formation they mostly employ in what may seem to be their default set up, Simeone’s men have actually employed a number of systems and formations in a bid to adapt to the opponents at hand.
They’ve also toggled between a three man and two man attack all in response to what the opposition are doing at the moment. This level of tactical flexibility and adaptability is made possible only by having versatile players that can play in a variety of positions and such players are prioritised by both managers. For Simeone, Saül Niguez has played as a centre back, central midfielder, defensive midfielder and right winger; Yannick Carrasco also has an impressive repertoire of different skills that enable him to be useful in several positions on the pitch as he can play both as a wide forward and a wide midfielder.
For context, in the 2014/2015 season when Atletico won the league, they scored 30 goals from set pieces, equaling their tally from open play that season. Last season, they scored 50 goals from open play, a twenty goal improvement their title winning season and the most surprising stat of all; they are yet to score from set piece this season, one of only four teams in La Liga this season. Simeone has adapted his sides play to the players at his disposal with the exit of Costa reducing their aerial strength up front, he has devised a way to make adequate use of the abilities of acquisitions like Carrasco, Griezman, and Gaitan among others.
On his part, Guardiola has gone out of his way to experiment with players in unorthodox positions with Philip Lahm – a full back all his life consistently deployed in midfield during Pep’s time at Bayern, he also experimented with Lewandowski out on the left and David Alaba played at centre back and central midfield with the promising Joshua Kimmich originally a defensive midfielder now adept at playing in not less than four positions including centre back, right back and central midfield and his most recent conversion at City being Kolarov from left back to centre back. He too adapted his system at Bayern to suit the players at his disposal, with Bayern showing a very strong wing orientation in their positional play, a departure from his Barcelona days when they created primarily through the center. Clearly, both of these managers place a distinct emphasis on being able to adapt to any situation and this shows in their player preferences, another similarity not readily acknowledged by the majority of the footballing world.
If I was asked to describe Pep Guardiola with a couple of words, it would it would be: control freak! But the same can also be said of his Argentine. Both managers place absolute emphasis on controlling the game; i.e. deciding what your opponent can and cannot do in the match, becoming the proactive force in the game even though they set about achieving this in different ways.
Guardiola seeks to establish control by having possession of the ball, in his line of thinking, whoever has the ball controls the game.
“The goal is to move the opponent, not the ball”
You see, to Pep the ball is simply an instrument of achieving control; there are other ways to achieve control but the ball is his favourite tool.
On the other hand, Simeone seeks to enforce control by strong compactness and defensive action. He seeks to achieve this by forcing the opponent to play in less dangerous areas of the pitch were Atletico can more easily regain possession while rendering the opponents possession stale and fruitless.
The above is a scene from their 2014 semi finals against Barcelona which they won 1:0 (2:1 on aggregate)
Notice how everyone except Dani Alves is marked. Atletico are encouraging Barcelona tom play the ball wide as their threat from there is reduced compared to the centre. Atletico seek to control the centre by defensive organization.
Despite playing what seems to most to be two opposing types of football, both managers have shown the uncanny characteristic of valuing the same kinds of players.
They’ve both shown a distinct liking for versatile players who can fill in at different areas of the pitch without it affecting the team adversely. They both place absolute emphasis on “team players”’ – the collective above the individual. However, the most striking of all is their mutual desire for technically proficient players; Pep requires such players because he likes to position his players deep inside the oppositions block while still expecting them to be effective under such inevitably high pressure situations. He requires awareness (conscientia), an immaculate first touch and excellent close control while still possessing vision and good passing ability all with a view to facilitate quick one touch passing to destabilize the opponents block.
Simeone desires players with the aforementioned qualities but he wants them for different reasons. Because Atletico generally occupy a deeper position on the pitch, the vast majority of their chances come from combination play; this means that their players must have an excellent first touch and immaculate close control because of the possibility of the passes being played in such high pressure situations especially if the opponent is counter-pressing. These qualities added to personal press resistance allows Atletico to break through the opponents counter-press and hit them on the break, the perfect example of this was the goal Griezman scored against Bayern in the semi finals of the Champions League last season. A Boateng pass was intercepted and as the nearby Bayern players collapsed on the ball to counter-press, Koke, with perfect vision simply lifted it for Griezman to cushion for Torres who then played in the Frenchman to score. A less proficient team would have folded under Bayern’s counter-press, not Atletico.
Both managers have shown a distinct faith in youth and have seen such faith rewarded. Guardiola is known for an aggressive youth promotion policy having come through Barcelona’s famed academy La Masia. He gave young players such as Sergio Busquets, Isaac Cuenca, Adama Traore, and Bojan, among others. At Bayern, he oversaw the debuts of players such as Kimmich, Gaudino, and regularly played Kingsley Coman even during high pressure matches and now at City the latest beneficiary of his youth friendly policy is Garcia who is getting more and more game time under the Catalan.
Simeone also boasts an impressive array of young talents farmed under his tutelage; Luciano Vietto made his debut under Diego when he was at Racing Club in their native Argentina and the current Atletico squad contains some very young key players including Jan Oblak, Jose Gimenez, and Saül Niguez among others.
Pep Guardiola is loved by the footballing world – and rightly so on account of his expansive, beautiful brand of football. On the other hand, Simeone attracts mixed reactions with some calling him brilliant while others labeling his style as “anti football”. However, these two men have more in common than meets the eye and I dare say they are two sides of the same coin.
My advice is to enjoy them both. At least that’s what I’m doing.