Atletico boss Simone earns DOUBLE what Klopp does – and will need to prove his worth to end Liverpool’s Champions League hopes
When the list of football’s biggest-earning managers did the rounds earlier this month, Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone was head and shoulders out in front, pocketing a full €20 million more than his nearest rivals.
The Argentine, 49, is said to earn €43.6 million (US$47.3 million) a year for his work at Atletico – putting him way ahead of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola in second (€23.3 million), and Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp (€17.5 million) down in third.
In past years, those staggering sums for Simeone may not have raised eyebrows; after all, he consistently helped his team to punch above their perceived weight, guiding them to the La Liga title in 2014, winning two Europa League crowns, and leading Atletico to Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016 (both times falling to Real Madrid).
This season, though, things are different, and there appears a much wider chasm between Simeone’s earnings and his team’s performances.
Atletico are languishing in fourth place in the Spanish top flight – a full 13 points off Real Madrid in first – and in January suffered the ignominy of an early Copa del Rey exit to lower-league opposition.
The team have appeared tired, devoid of the energy that has so characterised Simeone’s reign.
For a man known for squeezing every last drop of exertion from his players – and arguably justifying every last cent of his gargantuan salary – Simeone finds his position seriously under threat for the first time in his near decade-long tenure as Atletico manager.
The Argentine is under contract at the Wanada Metropolitano until 2022, but few would be surprised if he walked out this summer, his project having finally run its course.
It’s in this context that Simeone and Atletico prepare to welcome Liverpool for their Champions League last 16 first leg on Tuesday.
The contrast in current fortunes couldn’t be more stark.
Jurgen Klopp’s team are in procession to their first league title in three decades – 25 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, and seemingly still gathering momentum by the week.
They are also, of course, the reigning Champions League winners, on Tuesday returning to the scene of that title triumph when they travel to Atletico’s Wanda Metropolitano home.
Klopp’s Red machine has showed no sign of slowing, all things pointing to a rampant Liverpool getting the job done over the two legs against Atletico and rolling on to the quarterfinals, leaving Simeone to try and salvage something from a disappointing domestic campaign.
But rather than shirk from the challenge, a manager as dogged and assiduously astute as Simeone will relish it as he plots a way to derail Liverpool’s seemingly unstoppable momentum.
To do that, Simeone’s best hope will likely lie in the ability of his team to constrict the space and squeeze the oxygen out of opposition attacks, then pouncing.
For all their woes this season, Atletico have at least maintained remained stingy at the back, conceding only 17 times in 24 La Liga games (the second-lowest tally in the league, behind Real Madrid’s 16).
As ever with Simeone, that defensive base will be the foundation on which he plots Liverpool’s downfall. Restricting the space down the flanks for flying full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson will be crucial, as will plugging the gaps between the lines that the fluid front three of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino love to inhabit.
Liverpool’s midfield has arguably been their biggest improvement this season, with Jordan Henderson being as a serious candidate for Premier League player of the year.
However, the more congested Simeone can make things for Liverpool and Henderson in the middle of the park, the more he will fancy his chances.
Atletico’s biggest woes this season have been upfront, scoring just 25 times in 24 league games (making them the second-lowest scorers in the top half of the table, behind only Athletic Bilbao, who have found the net 23 times).
The summer departure of Antoine Griezmann – the club’s top-scorer in each of the past five seasons – has not helped, but there are other extenuating circumstances for Simeone, who has been unlucky with injuries.
Alvaro Morata has struggled recently with a groin problem, Diego Costa has been ruled out since back in November, and Joao Felix has missed the last three games with injury.
Reports are that Felix is out of Tuesday’s game with illness, although that is tempered by the good news that both Morata and Costa will be fit.
Analysis by The Athletic has pointed out that Atletico’s underlying attacking numbers are not as bad as their goal tally might suggest, and that they are at least creating chances at a healthy rate – if not converting them.
Simeone will hope that, with Costa and Morata back for the Liverpool game, they can at least remedy that and that the goals scored tally moves closer to their expected goals (xG) numbers.
Simeone will also aim to drawn on something far less tangible through his renown as a motivator who likes nothing better than instilling a backs-to-the-wall mentality in his players.
If ‘El Cholo’ can get his team as fired up for Tuesday’s game and the return leg at Anfield as he will be, they’ll stand far better chance of catching Liverpool out.
While Liverpool and Atletico seem set on divergent paths this season, there is much similarity in their recent history.
Both have suffered Champions League final heartbreak to Real Madrid – Atletico in 2014 and 2016, and Liverpool in 2019 – and both have hyper-animated, relentlessly driven managers.
Indeed, given their stature on Europe’s biggest stage over the past decade or so – including in Klopp’s previous role as Borussia Dortmund manager – it’s remarkable that Tuesday will be the first meeting between the pair.
There is clearly enormous mutual respect, with Klopp saying ahead of the Champions League tie that “if somebody can play for a result, it’s Atletico. Mr Simeone, who I respect a lot, he tries everything.”
When asked earlier this season who he currently admires most in management, Simeone selected the German, saying “[Klopp’s] had to lose things and also has won beautiful things, but always with the same style. I see him as close to his players.”
Two similar stories, two similar characters as managers, but whose teams are now moving in increasingly different directions.
Starting on Tuesday, Simeone will try to ensure he corrects that, again proving his worth to club he has moulded in his own gritty image for much of the past decade.