Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid is not a tactical revolution
Last week, the Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport devoted a full five pages to a single issue -- on the cover, Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone was shown in the classic Che Guevara pose. The issue they pondered was whether Simeone's style and brand of football, called "Cholismo" after his nickname, had replaced "tiki-taka" as the flavor of the month.
When you knock out Barcelona and Bayern Munich and find yourself level on points at the top of La Liga, it may seem fair to ask whether your style of play is the next big thing. Particularly when, season after season, you find yourself without key players -- Arda Turan, Joao Miranda, Mario Mandzukic last summer; David Villa, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis the year before.
Football is cyclical and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, which means folks will copy success. Folks have been emulating and incorporating tactical concepts that have succeeded for other teams for the past hundred years. Today, with blanket coverage and continuous cross-pollination, this is especially true. That's why there are fewer differences between the top leagues in terms of style of play than there were even just 20 years ago.
You saw it with Pep Guardiola's Barcelona itself. The team's techniques of high pressing and possession (neither was entirely new, though the way they were applied simultaneously was) were emulated to varying degrees across Europe, particularly among top teams. But given the success of Atletico -- and, even though it's a wholly different kettle of fish, Leicester in the Premier League -- are we now going to see a shift away from possession and pressing to not wanting the ball, playing quick counters and sitting deep?
Will "Cholismo" replace "Guardiolismo"?
Probably not, at least as far as top clubs are concerned. For a start, it's reductive and wrong to define "Cholismo" (and Atletico) as merely defensive barricades, set pieces, counterattacks and hanging on for dear life. You get that when you see them play Barcelona or Bayern, teams with much better players who emphasize possession. But Atleti spend most of the year playing clubs who are far worse in terms of technical ability than they are.
It's Spain, so you'll get some clubs like Rayo Vallecano with Paco Jemez or Celta with Eduardo Berizzo who will come out and attack better opponents. Yet teams like Granada or Levante won't stream forward and leave themselves exposed to the counter. That means Atleti will have a lot more of the ball, and they need to take the initiative. And to do it successfully, which they've done, you need something more than the counter and a war of attrition. You need a Plan B and players who can break down opponents, and Atleti have that with the likes of Saul, Koke, Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco.
Copying Atletico, therefore, wouldn't just involve trying to do what they did in the Champions League, but rather what they do against lesser teams, when in some ways Atletico go all Jekyll and Hyde. And that's not easy to do, which is part of what makes Simeone's achievements so remarkable.
There are other reasons that it's hard to see this sparking a trend. They're the same reasons that Italian football -- without getting into the old cliches of catenaccio -- moved away from a similar approach in the 1990s. Part of it was the way the game has changed. Attacking players are offered far more protection than they were in the past: you simply can't defend the way you once did. The game is now funded by its ability to deliver sports entertainment, and that defense-minded brand of football is out of step with the times.
Part of the transition away from a defensive approach was that, for a number of reasons, Italian football boasted outstanding attacking individuals -- both homegrown and imported -- who did not necessarily need to be part of a coherent attack-minded setup to be productive. The old joke about seven guys defending and three guys attacking had plenty of truth to it. When your three attackers were Diego Maradona, Bruno Giordano and Careca, or Roberto Mancini, Gianluca Vialli and Attilio Lombardo, you could get away with it.
The other key problem is that football is ultimately about trade-offs. And the formula is rather simple: if you are good at attacking and concede a goal, you can continue doing what you're good at (attacking) and catch up. And if you're good at attacking and you score, you can keep attacking and add to your margin.
Now flip it around. Let's say you're good at defending and score. Great! You will continue defending, which you're good at. But you won't necessarily be adding to your margin, which means that you can fall victim to a refereeing error, an individual mistake or a moment of brilliance from the opposition.
The real problem, though comes if you're a defensive team and you concede. At that stage, you need to take the initiative and attack, which won't be your forte. In a low-scoring sport, so if you don't maximize your opportunities to score, you can pay a hefty price.
Obviously, if you're good at counterattacking, taking the lead gives you an enormous edge. You saw it with Atletico in the first leg, when Saul's early moment of individual genius gave them the lead. The problem with such goals is that you don't know when -- or if -- they're going to come. Just as you don't know when -- or if -- someone will make a mistake, whether that someone is the opposition or the referee.
In other words, it's a gamble.
This doesn't mean that Simeone should have taken a different approach. On the contrary, he kept it tight and waited for something to happen, and chance and probability decreed that this positive "something" happened early. Had he gone toe-to-toe and tried to outplay Bayern or Barcelona, who simply have better players, his chances of winning would likely have dropped.
The interesting question as I see it is whether Simeone would have played this way if he had been the one at the helm of Bayern or Barcelona. I'm pretty sure he would not. "I don't know what I'll be as a manager," he told me several years ago, when he had just retired and was studying furiously for a coaching career. "But I'm increasingly convinced of two things: you will be more comfortable if your team reflects your personality, and you need to work with what you have and exploit the moment and the situation, masking your weaknesses and emphasizing your strengths."
Sure, if you look at the broader definition of "Cholismo," there's plenty to be copied and admired in Atletico Madrid: the players' tremendous application and execution, their intensity, and the obvious connection they have with their fans, which creates a virtuous cycle. Much of that is down to Simeone, who imbues his team with spirit, positivity and self-belief. But every coach tries to do that. It's not rocket science, it's just that Simeone does it better than most. And he has the tools to do it.
If, however, you look at a narrower definition and take "Cholismo" to be defensive organization that is just about aggression, a safety-first mentality and nicking goals on the counter and set pieces (and, like I said above, there is much more to Atletico than that), you're off base if you think this is a harbinger of some kind of tactical revolution, at least for the biggest, best-resourced clubs.
Simply put, if you're one of the big boys, you're going to have a lot of the ball against most opponents. And you had better have a clear idea of what to do with it.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.