This is the tightest (six points separate first from fourth), most open (four teams) La Liga title race in living memory. Still more remarkable is that this weekend’s potential title decider at Camp Nou will also be a “summit” for two coaches in Barca’s Ronald Koeman and Atleti’s Diego Simeone. Both either are or should be considered to be fighting to save their job.
That’s right. A flurry of points for Barca over the next four matches and Koeman can lift the Liga-Copa double for the Catalans in his debut season. I know.
And if Simeone’s Rojiblancos win against Barcelona, Real Sociedad, Osasuna and Valladolid, then they are champions — nobody can prevent that. As league leaders, Atleti will lift the trophy if they secure all 12 available points.
Yet the harsh fact is that Koeman is fighting to ensure that he can see out the remaining 12 months of his Barcelona contract. And as far as Simeone goes, nobody who watched the apathetic, fear-ridden, apology of a performance which his team, patently on the Argentinian’s orders, turned in to hang on to their 1-0 lead at Elche last weekend, can properly argue that Simeone even vaguely resembles the man who took over the club in 2011, or won them the title in 2014. Never mind Atleti’s league position — he’s in decline.
OK, OK, hold your horses. I can imagine some of you are spluttering in apoplectic fury.
This is, I promise, neither an attempt to generate the kind of controversy which gains attention nor, unequivocally, is it any kind of personal attack on either the 58-year-old Dutchman or his Saturday night opponent.
Football — especially in the age of instant opinions, brands, marketing, social media, ultra-important TV contracts and money, money, money — feeds voraciously off characters like these two men. Even before we begin to evaluate what they’ve achieved this season it’s a fact that both Koeman and Simeone are iconic. Their very presence in Spanish football, be it La Liga or the Champions League, is hugely beneficial.
Some may argue that Diego Martinez (Granada) or Julen Lopetegui (Sevilla) are “better” coaches. That the minor miracle Jose Luis Mendilibar achieved at Eibar by keeping a club from a town with a population of 28,000 in the top division these last few years is, pound for pound, easily a match for anyone who does “quite well” while in charge of super-talents like Lionel Messi, Jan Oblak, Antoine Griezmann and Marcos Llorente.
But regardless of whether those people were right or wrong, it would ignore the fact that Koeman and Simeone sell. Hugely. TV companies, radio stations, sponsors, magazines, newspapers, fans, player-agents, rival footballers — these and many more from the global football population feel irrevocably drawn to super-icons like these.
For Barcelona to be coached by the man who smashed home a howitzer 1-0 goal to ensure their first victorious European Cup final in 1992 is sexy. It’s that simple.
To his credit Koeman, nearly 30 years later, doesn’t look all that different. He is identifiable. Iconic. Special. The ‘I’m elite, I proved it repeatedly’ magical sheen which he’s taken onto Barcelona’s Tito Vilanova training ground and used to impose his will on this previously stumbling squad can help Barca’s board sell the cash-strapped club to all kinds of customers.
Ditto Simeone. Again, he looks an almost carbon copy of the guy who snarled and brawled his way around La Liga’s midfield battlegrounds when, under Raddy Antic, Atleti won the league and cup double in 1996.
And, whether you’re a dedicated follower of word football or not, that gnarled, mischievous, “Who are YOU looking at?” face of his remains utterly evocative of Serie A, La Liga and Argentinian international football of the 1990s.
The fact that Simeone has already “done a Koeman” by returning to the club he loves, where he’s adored, to win them European trophies PLUS their first La Liga title since he anchored their midfield in 1996, is a magical elixir. It’s a good story and it enshrines his greatness. And while 99% of those who use his nickname, El Cholo, don’t have a clue what it is or why it exists, it’s a globally known brand name. Companies spend millions to try and establish an identity that strong.
The case for the defence doesn’t rest there. Each man can point to their body of work this season and use an expletive in response to the idea that they might be fighting for the right to continue in their jobs.
At the start of this campaign, Koeman was a bit like a homeowner who has returned from a long holiday to find that someone’s broken in his house, lived there for a bit and left behind a shameful mess. That’s what the former club captain was confronted with when he took over at Barcelona.
In relatively quick time, Koeman has restored order. For long parts of this season, he’s unified the senior strata of the squad, the guys who’ve seen and done it all, with the emerging kids and occasionally even made the “whole” beautiful to watch again.
He’s taken Barca to two finals, with a 50% win rate, he’s lifted them their first trophy since May 2019, he’s put something of a happy countenance back on Messi’s face, and he’s coped despite the president who appointed him (Josep Maria Bartomeu) abandoning ship in the most undignified and embarrassing manner.
The trust in Pedri, the promotion of Ilaix Moriba, finally getting a reliable tune out of Ousmane Dembele, a playing system which has suddenly made midfielder Sergio Busquets not only crucial again but happy, relevant, a fulcrum — Koeman hasn’t failed. No.
Now Simeone. I pointed out recently, and thus won’t repeat at any length here, how financially vital he’s been to Atleti since joining. Not winning La Liga or the Champions League seems less important to the club than the many, many hundreds of millions he’s earned Atleti for repeatedly going to the “close but no cigar” stages in Europe.
Right now, they’ll be title favourites in some quarters. They have halted the awful slide, in February and March, which saw just 16 points won out of a possible 33. Crucial in Los Colchoneros sitting proudly on top of the table has been Simeone persuading 34-year-old striker Luis Suarez that this was the right place to come and plot revenge on Barcelona — 19 goals and two assists later, kudos Cholo.
It was also Simeone who reinvented Llorente as a roaming second striker with the Llegada (timing of arrival) on the edge of the box which has bagged him 12 goals and 10 assists. The Argentinian’s patience has revitalised €70m forward Thomas Lemar. And occasionally his use of the 3-5-2 formation, almost unheard of during the previous years of his reign, made Atleti look Liga-dominant. His team are top at the time of writing. Who wouldn’t have signed up for that if offered at the start of the season?
But there are reasons that undermine the two men — some that I’m wholly certain leave Koeman suspecting that unless he wins the title, he’s very likely to depart. And which leave anyone who’s been watching Simeone closely admitting that he has, even if temporarily, rusted badly — especially tactically.
First the Dutchman. He’s a foundation-layer. His ideas, his personality, have combined to allow a rebuild. But across the season he has failed to look like a man whose coaching habits and tactical match-reading make him as attractive for a different, better future.
Would you trust the guy who digs your foundations, lays the cement and bricks (and curses like a trooper while doing so) to nail the garden sculpturing, the interior design and plan the guest list for your first high-society party once the house is ready?
For example. Koeman was badly second best in both Clasicos. It wasn’t just a pair of Real Madrid victories, Zinedine Zidane out-did his Dutch opposite number and quite clearly so.
Also, Koeman has a coaching tendency which I’m afraid looks anachronistic. Johan Cruyff, Koeman’s coach in the Barcelona Dream Team era, used to tell his early 1990s squad to stop bothering him with requests to train their defensive play better. Especially set pieces. “You are the defenders — YOU sort it out,” he famously told them.
Modern football can’t cope with that idea. There are now so many fitter, faster, better-informed footballers that improvised defence as a central philosophy is, literally, out of date. Cruyff’s era didn’t have endless, brilliantly edited data via which weaknesses could be pinpointed and exploited, particularly at set plays. Koeman’s era does. The fact remains that after every seismic defeat, whether it’s Cadiz away, the Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain thrashing at home, or losing to Granada the other day, Koeman can express very clearly where he thinks his defenders went wrong.
But why isn’t he teaching them to avoid these very errors? Because he’s largely ceding to the defensive unit the duty to think through how they want to play, how to practice it, who should fine-tune things and he’s ordered his players to avoid conceding set play goals by avoiding conceding … set plays.
Positionally and possession-wise Koeman’s Barcelona play better than when he took over. Defensively it’s a lucky dip, and too often an unlucky one. Just think back at how many times Barcelona concede from set plays or well-worked counter attacks which leave them looking all at sea. I’ll tell you now — often enough to have tossed away sufficient points to have already had this league title in the bag.
I have the strongest impression that Messi respects Koeman, and knows he’s benefitted from the Dutchman, but severely doubts whether they’ll be winning the Champions League any time soon if Koeman is in charge. If Messi is communicating that to new club president Joan Laporta, then look out Koeman. Laporta has had a handful of opportunities to 100% confirm the Dutchman for next season and has eluded doing so thus far.
Hence, I think, Koeman’s increasingly frantic and irascible touchline attitudes which led to a sending off against Granada. The Dutchman knows: It’s win or bust.
And what of Simeone? From the turn of the year on, Atletico have turned in a handful of absolutely abject performances. Think of both Chelsea games in Europe, the defeat and draw to Levante, losing at Sevilla or San Mames and, frankly, the ridiculous “let’s drop back and defend for our lives” tactic after taking the lead against second-bottom Elche in the 23rd minute on Saturday. They nearly blew it — surrendering all initiative, taking off the attacking players, giving up a last-minute penalty which Fidel Chaves missed, and the worst thing is that we’ve seen it all before. Repeatedly.
Simeone has been hugely slow to use Geoffrey Kondogbia, and Felipe was happy to be quoted about his coach being uncommunicative and slow to help the defender understand the club’s new playing system. Moreover, the Argentinian is completely manacled to the “let’s not lose” dictum rather than the “we play to win, let the opponents worry about US!” The club’s €126m record signing, Joao Felix, looks green with worry about how he’s ever going to get three or four starts in a row and, honestly, he’s not performing at anything like the level he should be.
And so, the box office questions are: What happens to Atleti and Barcelona on Saturday? What happens to them between now and the end of the brilliant title race? Can either of them take Real Madrid’s title away? But that’s the short term, not the medium term, not the development plan. Not the way to encourage big players to remain and still bigger stars to be willing to join.
Both Koeman and Simeone have proved certain, important, things this season. But each has left himself mired in doubts, unanswered questions, and has specifically shown major weaknesses which bring into question not whether they’re capable of reaching the tape first in this crazy, topsy-turvy season. But whether they have the vision, skill, hunger, and strategic excellence to make their club consistently challenge to win La Liga and the Champions League against Spain’s and Europe’s biggest clubs over the next few years?
The jury, in both cases, has masses of evidence to consider. But it’s not yet clear what the verdicts will be.