Jim White

Former hate-figure Simeone would be perfect for English game

Jim White

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There is not a club in the Premier League that would not relish the idea of having him in charge.

And no wonder. In three years at the Vincente Calderon stadium, Diego Simone has developed the kind of reputation that makes billionaires open their wallets in excitement.

Last Saturday, the 44-year-old Argentine coach accomplished something that made the world take note. His Atletico Madrid won the Liga title after drawing their final game at the home of Barcelona, the one club capable of stopping them.

It was an extraordinary achievement, not least because their most effective player – Diego Costa, the man around whom their tactical plan is built – hobbled out of the fray after no more than 20 minutes.

When Simeone took over at the club, they were poised on the lip of relegation, a laughing stock operation renowned largely for the capricious decisions of their previous owner, Jesus Gil, a man who went through managers with a frequency the rest of the world tends to reserve for a change of underpants.

As with Manchester City, for generations it appeared the only reason for supporting Atletico rather than the more glamorous, more successful, more renowned club across town was through an excess of masochism. Unlike City, however, Simeone achieved a seismic turnaround in the club’s fortunes not through the attachment of a hose pipe pumping in cash, but through the application of brilliant coaching methods.

To win La Liga if you are not Barcelona or Real Madrid is becoming an increasingly unlikely task.

Whatever we may think about Richard Scudamore’s private correspondence, one of his finer achievements is to maintain a degree of equity in the way in which television revenue is distributed among Premier League clubs. This season the outfit which finished bottom of the table will receive almost as much as the champions.

That is not how in works in Spain.

There, Barca and Real negotiate their own deal and hoover up a huge proportion of the cash. In the moneyball world of modern football, how much you pay your players is generally an indication of where you will finish in the league. To be able to outsmart rivals with playing budgets three or four times the size of that you have at your own disposal is the mark of a truly magnificent coach.

Simeone has done it by applying a system which mirrors his personality. His endless talk of “big balls” is appropriate: his team play with real guts. With a towering goalkeeper and a solid back line they are defensively immense.

But it is how they play when not in possession that is the key. They sprint at their opponents, hunting down the ball with breakneck pace. Then, when they have it, they attack with real threat and purpose. Up front, in Diego Costa, they have a centre forward of strength and power, ready to bundle at set pieces.

It is in short a style of play that would ideally suit the English sensibility. There is nothing effete or tiki-taka about the Simeone way. There is no hanging around making pretty patterns when his side has the ball. As has been demonstrated by his compatriot Mauriccio Pochettino at Southampton, it is a way that can really succeed in the Premier League, one that would get the best out of English players.

Like Simeone, Pochettino was on the receiving end of English mockery when he played for his country against England in the 2002 World Cup. It was his merest feather of a touch on Michael Owen that gained England the penalty which David Beckham, redeeming himself after his tangle with Simeone four years previously, converted with such delight.

Now, both men are hugely coveted in the very country where they were once reviled. Clubs like Tottenham, Aston Villa or Newcastle would kill for the chance to employ either of them. And you suspect both of them would thrive in any such environment.

But for clubs of that stature it is probably already too late to lure Simeone. Not content with steering his club to La Liga, he has taken them to the European Cup final for the first time in 40 years.

Tomorrow in Lisbon, in the first ever derby from any city to grace the final, he will pitch his side of workaday journeymen against the galaticos of Real. The odds are ridiculous, the Real of Bale and Ronaldo, Isco and Modric overwhelming favourites.

Which is how Simeone likes it. How he will relish the challenge. In his all-black attire and gangster sweep of hair, he walks the line like a footballing Johnny Cash. He looks terrifying, but his players clearly adore him. And are clearly prepared to run through brick walls on his bidding.

In fact, if things go well for him tomorrow and he adds the Champions League trophy to the one he has already acquired for winning La Liga, you imagine those in charge at Manchester United will wonder if they were a little premature in negotiating with Louis Van Gaal to take control from next season.

Watching what is going on in Spain, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Diego Simeone would have been just the man to revive the ailing former champions.

By Jim White - on Twitter @jimw1

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