Radomir Antic, who knows a lot about both the man and the club, is in no doubt regarding Diego Simeone’s feat at Atletico Madrid: “A miracle”, the former Luton Town player says. Amazingly, it isn’t the only one in European football right now. The same word is being used by staff at Anfield to describe Liverpool’s rise under Brendan Rodgers.
If all of this sounds overstated, consider their over-achievements. Although Atletico will be forced to sell at the end of this season to help balance the books, the two teams are defying football’s modern economic realities to compete in a manner that simply didn’t seem possible in this era of petro-dollar super clubs. Atletico’s annual revenue of £89m is dwarfed by Real Madrid’s £500m; Liverpool’s wage bill is just over 50 per cent of Manchester City’s £233m. You only have to consider what’s at stake in the next few days to see why this season represents such a departure.
On Tuesday, Atletico take on Chelsea – annual revenue £250m – in the Champions’ League semi-final first leg, having already consolidated their place on top of La Liga with Friday’s 2-0 win over Elche. Should they last the pace, they will be the first team to win the Spanish title other than Barcelona and Real Madrid since 2004, and the financially poorest club to lift the European Cup since Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto in that same year.
As for, Liverpool today they travel to Norwich City hoping to put themselves within touching distance of a first English title since 1990. If they finish the job, they will be the champions with the smallest revenue, wage bill and squad – relative to rivals – since the Premier League was founded.
One club enjoying such a surprise season would be invigorating. Two in the same year, so quickly following Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, may just represent a new breed of team and manager. It is genuinely refreshing, and the way in which they have got this far does restore one’s faith in what can still be achieved without top-level money.
Although there are questions about Atletico’s ownership, and Liverpool’s actual expenditure is relatively high, none of that has really driven the construction of the two sides. You only have to look at how Rodgers decided to take a financial hit on Andy Carroll to see the benefit of his philosophy; and Simeone equally benefited from the sale of Radamel Falcao.
And the unprecedented leaps in terms of league position and points achieved by both managers has been echoed in the radically improved level of performance they have extracted from players many thought were lost causes. And both men have done all that using remarkably distinctive methods that reinforce the spirit of defiance around the two clubs.
“I think that’s why everyone is so captivated,” Chris Davies, Rodgers’s Head of Opposition Analysis, says. “Relative to the start point, it is a miracle.”
Intensity has been key for Atletico. They cite the tie that took them into this week’s meeting with Chelsea, the 2-1 aggregate quarter-final victory over Barcelona. Simeone drilled home that his backline should always be within a certain distance of midfield, thereby ensuring Leo Messi was isolated like never before. Many Spanish coaches have known to try that but the difference was Simeone derived the necessary battle frenzy, while also ensuring enough energy to persistently cause Barça problems. Atletico’s opening 20 minutes of the second leg was one of the most breathless spells of football this season.
Club staff say that comes from the uniquely regimental siege mentality created. Antic managed Simeone at Atletico during their last title win in 1995-96 and says he always had “a natural authority. Even as a player, he put character into the team.”
Simeone has obviously put in much more than that as a coach. Atletico break relentlessly and possess a seemingly endless range of set-pieces. Assistant manager German Burgos, who attracted attention last week for analysing a match through Google Glass, always carries a folder that details every Atletico play. There is also the players’ incomparable fitness, with Simeone instructing staff to alter their conditioning to cater for this season’s extra demands. In other words, his side prepare better, work harder and run faster than any of the richer outfits. As Simeone told owner Miguel Angel Gil when he took over in December 2011: “I’m going to make it unpleasant to play us, teams are going to suffer.”
Liverpool have also run opposition ragged, but in a different way. If Simeone’s approach is about minimising external gaps, Rodgers is all about maximising inherent talent.
“That’s what’s great about it,” Davies says. “Brendan’s a proper coach who improves players... there won’t be a better manager who can coach like Brendan can.”
It means Liverpool play the kind of attacking football that is supposed to require elite money. Davies explains that is not necessarily about bringing out ability, but providing players with an understanding of how best to use it within an overall plan. That has allowed so many devastating formation switches.
Adrian Tucker is goalkeeping coach at Swansea and, having worked with Rodgers closely, must be one of the few not amazed by the extent of that improvement.
“There was no doubt in my mind he was going to be a success because he could affect and improve players, whoever they were. Am I’m surprised at how quickly? I’d say definitely not.”