Blame Diego Simeone the player for our one-track minds, but it’s hard to see el Cholo the coach as anything but an extension of the man on the field. As head coach with Atlético, he’s been an obstinate disbeliever — a person whose combination of dedication, optimism and talent leave him unconvinced that Spain’s established pecking order applies to his club. That same mentality that lead to 106 caps for Argentina is upending the duopoly in La Liga.
Perhaps it’s that optimism that’s convinced Simeone he can do what Carlo Ancelotti, André Villas-Boas, Roberto Mancini, Rafa Benítez, and José Mourinho could not: Turn Fernando Torres back into a good player. With an irony that belies the Christmas season, the higher ups at the Calderón have turned Milan’s lump of coal into a gift, giving Simeone a player he originally asked for this summer. If el Cholo, only 44, can break up Real Madrid and Barcelona’s rule over La Liga, surely he can get a former Spanish international pointed back toward goal.
I talked briefly about the idea yesterday, but in some ways, the task seems much harder than winning a Spanish title. Perhaps the probabilities would say otherwise, but at least winning La Liga was done through a basic, straightforward, if difficult to implement idea: Convince your players they’re capable, establish a new standard performance, and meet that mark on a weekly basis. Of course, that standard’s nearly impossible to hit, particularly given Atlético’s resources, but it’s a plan nonetheless — the kind of “why not” naiveté that’s fueled Atlético’s run.
In that same vein, it may be just as easy to say, “Tell Fernando to score goals,” but that’s clearly not enough. At least, it hasn’t been enough for Ancelotti, Mourinho and the myriad other coaches who’ve been tasked with this riddle. Given the combined seven Champions League titles Torres’s Chelsea bosses held, it’d be a mistake to assume their failures were because of a lack of talent, just as it’d be a mistake to assume “just go score” will be enough for Simeone.
And yet, Simeone’s record hints otherwise. It’s what makes him so special. Atlético’s talent is probably better than the plucky underdog narrative hints, but the group’s tactical awareness and execution has always been a huge key to its success. That those qualities have been instilled without any obvious bells or whistles has emboldened Simeone’s lore. There’s no obvious reason why the methods he’s employed in Madrid couldn’t work in England, Italy … China or Major League Soccer. No matter the place, no matter to players, these principles should work.
In terms of individual players, the story is the same. Though the likes of Diegos Costas and Godin, Koke, and Thibaut Courtois have all excelled individually under Cholo, the team’s success has been built on the squad’s collective improvement. Arda Turan hasn’t seemed to have benefited any more or less from Simeone than Juanfran, Tiago, or Raúl García. Everybody’s been lifted to higher ground by some basic principles: be prepared, work as a unit, commit to the task, and believe.
Why can’t the same approach resurrect Torres? Recent history, one could claim. The idea that Torres is beyond redemption, as evidenced by his play since leaving Liverpool. Maybe Torres’s confidence is broken beyond repair. Emotionally, mentally, he can’t make the same commitment that won over hearts at Anfield.
But look down the list of players who’ve spent a decent amount of time under Simeone in Madrid, and you see very few whose games weren’t elevated by their coach. Talent that was previously competing at a Europa League level is now performing on par with Real Madrid and Barcelona. Is it beyond reason to think Cholo would do the same for El Niño? Torres may be seen as terrible when compared to his former self, but surely he isn’t so far beyond reproach that, under Simeone’s guidance, he can’t become a serviceable second option.
If el Cholo truly is as special as recent history suggests, it could happen. He could be the perfect man to resurrect Torres: Somebody whose playing days aren’t so far gone that he can’t empathize, a person whose belief in what’s possible sometimes carries an air of imperiousness.
Even if he comes up short, his reputation won’t be hurt for it. Perhaps he will be seen as arrogant, assuming he could do what other great could not. Where others have tried and eventually demurred, he’s demanding the challenge. Go get Torres, he said. Even after four failed months away from Stamford Bridge, Cholo still wants him, setting up a scenario that could expose the extent of his powers. Torres may be that far gone.
If he succeeds, however, we’ll have even more evidence to suggest Simeone deserves a place among his profession’s elites, exactly because he accomplished what his peers could not. Not only will he have authored one the more remarkable seasons in recent history, but also he’ll have salvaged a lost cause.
As last season’s title shows, it’s ground he’s covered before. Now, the same naiveté that toppled Barça and El Real is ready for this more nebulous challenge.