Unlike Simeone's Atletico, Seedorf's AC Milan still searching for identity
The most fascinating aspect of Atletico Madrid is how the club resembles its coach, Diego Simeone.
He was a hugely talented central midfielder, winning titles in Spain and Italy while becoming the first Argentine to collect more than 100 caps for his national side; only Roberto Ayala and Javier Zanetti, two of his contemporaries, have beaten his tally.
Simeone could pass astutely, he scored more goals than expected, he was superb in the air, and he was highly mobile.
But primarily, Simeone was a battler, and not always a particularly pleasant player. He often wore No. 8 but shared many characteristics with the classic Argentine No. 5, the man tasked with tackling, fouling and kicking the opposition No. 10, stifling creativity however possible. Asked to describe his playing style, Simeone once said he "played with a knife between his teeth."
His most famous moment on a football pitch, certainly from an English perspective, was him getting David Beckham dismissed the 1998 World Cup. Simeone, wearing the captain’s armband, had actually made the initial foul, for which he received a booking, but Beckham lashed out as Simeone retreated, which prompted the midfielder to topple. Simeone, the ultimate windup merchant, had done his job -- a dirty foul followed by a dramatic, exaggerated fall.
Atletico aren’t purely a dirty side, but there’s more than a hint of Simeone in their play. They turn matches into aggressive battles, remaining extraordinarily compact and harrying opponents in possession, hunting them down in packs and overpowering them physically.
The holding midfielders, as you would expect, are Simeone-esque, but the wide players are battlers too. And have you ever seen a prolific centre-forward as combative as Diego Costa? Atletico’s main man is practically a box-to-box centre-forward. Compared to the Atletico of five years ago -- the rather languid 4-2-4 featuring Jose Reyes, Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero and Simao Sabrosa across the front -- it’s an entirely different side.
Simeone’s situation was interesting because he went from being a player to a manager immediately. There was no break for him to reconsider his perspective on football, no sabbatical spent in the coaching courses of Argentina, no chance he would become a Menottista rather than a Bilardista. On Feb. 7, 2006, it was announced that he would play three more games with Racing in Argentina; he did, then he became their manager on Feb. 20.
In his first news conference as manager of a European side, Catania in Serie A, Simeone announced his game plan. “I expect the side to press up the field as high as possible, keeping tight and with grit, being ravenous for victory,” he said as soon as he was unveiled. “I'm not too obsessed with tactics, as the attitude of the team is more important.”
He wanted a team of Simeones.
His opposite number in this week’s European second-round match, Clarence Seedorf, might follow Simeone’s lead. Not in precisely the same way, but like the Argentine, he moved straight from his playing career to his managerial career; he doesn’t even have a UEFA Pro License yet.
Of course, not every coach actively attempts to project their own playing identity onto the side. Marcelo Bielsa, for example, one of the most attack-minded coaches in the modern game, was a tough-tackling defender in his brief career in Argentina. George Graham, who built the famous old back five at Arsenal in the 1990s, was notorious for his strict focus on defensive shape and emphasis on heavy running -- but in his playing days at the club was known as "the stroller" because of his laid-back attitude.
But what is Seedorf all about? For such a highly rated, successful footballer, it’s surprisingly difficult to say what Seedorf excelled at. The Dutchman’s magnificent career was characterised by a stream of medals, and he famously became the first player to win the Champions League with three separate clubs: Ajax, Real Madrid and Milan. Amazingly, he played for more than a decade after that achievement, proving his longevity.
Seedorf, however, never had a clear identity as a footballer. He was a fine all-around midfielder -- able to tackle, pass and shoot effectively -- but he was rarely his side’s leader and never its best player, with the arguable exception of his recent spell in Brazil with Botafogo.
In the great Milan side of the mid-2000s, he was (at best) the third-most important playmaker, behind Andrea Pirlo and Kaka and sometimes Rui Costa. With Rino Gattuso crucial for his energy, Seedorf was the least crucial member of the midfield. To a certain extent, the same was true at Real Madrid and Ajax, where there were multiple talented superstars emerging. Seedorf was always there in the background, playing along diligently rather than conducting the orchestra. His career was a 10/10, but at any one moment, he was never more than an 8/10 player.
With Seedorf, the perception of his talent was always slightly greater than his overall contribution. An immensely talented player and a hugely likable individual, no one questioned quite whether Seedorf truly deserved the plaudits, or medals, that came his way. He was, without being overly harsh, a superdomestique, to use a term from cycling -- someone there to facilitate the play of others albeit capable of being a crucial playmaker in another side.
What’s irrefutable, however, is that Seedorf helped encourage his side to play good, attacking football, and that will be evident in his coaching style.
“I like to see a team that likes to attack, who is creative, which for me means players who do individual stuff, but also a team like Bayern Munich has shown over the last few years that with great organisation and offensive power,” Seedorf said. “I’m not really a fan of those teams who are always waiting behind and counterattacking. ... If you ask me what really excites me, then it’s a team that tries to score more than one goal in a game.”
Can Milan really play with as many playmakers as Seedorf wishes, however?
In the 1-0 defeat to Udinese at the weekend, Milan used a trio of Keisuke Honda, Valter Birsa and Robinho behind Giampaolo Pazzini. The likes of Kaka and Adel Taarabt have also been used in that trio, and there’s a feeling that Seedorf is being too risky with his team selections. It’s made Milan too flimsy, and while a team of Seedorfs would be easy on the eye, it might lack genuine efficiency and purpose in possession.
When Seedorf was at the club, Carlo Ancelotti managed to fit so many playmakers together in an extremely narrow shape, but they were all extremely responsible players and Milan boasted the best defenders in Europe who could, to a certain extent, look after themselves. Now Milan’s defence is the weakest it has been for more than a quarter-century and needs significant protection.
Seedorf is depending on his authority as a Milan legend and on successfully transferring his irrefutable professionalism onto his charges.
“The president, Silvio Berlusconi, has always expressed the values he would like to see on the field and also off it,” Seedorf said. “The DNA of Milan is something I have inside of me.”
So far, however, Seedorf’s true coaching identity shares a certain uncertainty with his playing identity.