When your eyes greedily scan the mouth-watering list of quarter-finals which will kick off the upcoming Champions League ‘mini-tournament’ in Lisbon, it’s fairly understandable that one particular fixture might get lost amongst the Bayerns, Barcelonas and Paris Saint-Germains.
RB Leipzig and Atlético Madrid were both the third-placed club in their respective leagues.
Leipzig finished 16 points behind the eventual champions of their league, Atléti 17 behind the champions of theirs. Atléti have never won the Champions League in their 117-year history. Leipzig are associated with an energy drink commonly used by university students to pull all-nighters.
And yet, Leipzig’s fixture against Atléti presents, if not the most intriguing clash of teams, the most intriguing clash of managerial personalities – one which involves one of the greatest managers from the present era of football, and one of the managers who may well dominate the next.
Diego Simeone has long remained one of the most unique figures in the current game, showing an extraordinary level of success and longevity against all odds, but one of the sterner tests of just how far he can take his side comes against Julian Nagelsmann, a coach tipped for an inevitable ascent to the very peak of the game.
Ahead of what could well be a memorable contest, let’s take a closer look at the key areas of comparison for an iconic gaffer of the present, and a fascinating coach of the future…
Nagelsmann would be the first to admit that between himself and El Cholo as players, there can be no comparison.
Like so many managers, Nagelsmann began to take an interest in coaching after his own career was cut short by injury – with his teammates at youth level starting to progress towards Bundesliga football (with some of them still playing there), Nagelsmann’s own chances of a succesful career in the German top-flight were ended by a knee injury at the age of 20.
By contrast, Simeone was one of Argentina’s all-time greats, at one point reluctant all-time appearance-holder for his country, having surpassed none other than El Diego. As English fans know all too well, El Cholo was frequently in the eye of the storm for his country, famously getting David Beckham sent off at the 1998 World Cup.
Perhaps this marked contrast in the experience of playing the game is reflected in the early managerial careers of the two men. Simeone, already a legend in his native Argentina, was plunged once more into the eye of the storm, with Argentina’s Racing Club begging him to manage them shortly after he retired there. Despite losing the first three games, including the Avellenada Derby against Independiente, Racing kept faith in their iconic ex-midfielder and the club’s fortunes were turned around.
Without the illustrious playing career of Simeone to boost his managerial prospects, the ‘mini-Mourinho’ Nagelsmann had to climb the ladder from the lowest possible rung, gaining such a reputation for assiduous, detailed planning that his rising star became impossible to ignore.
Pushed by none other than Thomas Tuchel into a coaching job when a sales job for BMW looked likelier, Nagelsmann started out as 1860 Munich’s U17 manager, beginning a journey which would eventually see him appointed to lead Hoffenheim’s U19s. When Hoffenheim manager Huub Stevens unexpectedly fell sick, Nagelsmann was appointed before he’d even had time to finish his coaching badges, and became an overnight success.
For even the casual observer of Simeone’s Atlético Madrid side, there is one standout quality of his team – El Cholismo, the philosophy of self-belief in impossible circumstances, the dedication to extreme levels of physical conditioning which, as Wolves’ Diogo Jota remembers from his time at Atléti, involved players waking up at 7AM in pre-season to ‘run, run, run, run’.
This can manifest itself in extraordinary displays of backs-against-the-wall courage, as seen at Anfield in March, but also in perpetual complaints of Atléti playing with an attritional negativity which means that despite being La Liga’s third-best team, they are its seventh-top scorers.
Simeone has always rejected this totalising characterisation of Atléti, both in its positive and negative aspects, claiming instead that his side are ‘chameleons‘ who adapt to circumstance. Though Los Colchoneros are now synonymous with El Cholo‘s compact 4-4-2, which tends to feature a hardworking forward alongside a traditional number 9 who chases long balls, tactical flexibility involving a number of formations has been an important part of their success.
Nagelsmann, despite the comparison with Mourinho which has stuck, likes by contrast to convey a relaxed presence on the training ground, arguing that ‘if you have great tactical qualities, but you are not good with man management, you will never be successful.’
However, within his training sessions, he has been credited with innovation above all – at Hoffenheim, he had the ‘Videowall’, an enormous outdoor screen which allowed players to watch back relevant footage of matches and training. He’s also been praised for his employment of the so-called ‘Footbonaut’, a mechanical cage which tests the reaction time and passing skill of players by shooting balls at them.
Tactically, Nagelsmann resembles Simeone in having a basic strategy which can be adjusted according to the match situation. Leipzig’s has been called a 4-2-2-2, where wingers like Christopher Nkunku will take a lot of touches centrally, allowing Nagelsmann’s rampaging fullbacks to overlap. Unlike Atléti, Leipzig like to have plenty of possession, probing and pulling players out of position before striking with incredible speed of thought and incisive passing on the break.
For Leipzig, there will be one palpable absence on Thursday night, and an absence which could well prove the difference as they seek to progress to the semi-finals – that of Timo Werner, who in June signed a five-year contract with Chelsea.
As well as scoring a gargantuan 28 Bundesliga goals this season, Werner was one of the most significant cogs in Leipzig’s intensive, pressing-oriented, fast-paced football. In an RB Leipzig set-up where the collective is the focal point rather than the individual, Werner’s pace, tactical versatility and incredible finishing have shown how one great player is still capable of elevating the side.
And yet this won’t be the first time that Nagelsmann’s unflappable Leipzig side have had to deal with the unfamiliar, and with players like Konrad Laimer, Marcel Halstenberg and Marcel Sabitzer who are accustomed to playing in a variety of different roles, not to mention able replacements for Werner in Dani Olmo, Patrick Schick and (if he is not injured) Yussuf Poulsen, the team is by no means without hope.
On the red and white side of Madrid, Simeone’s options in the attacking department have also been scrutinized, with his famous front two not quite recovering from the departure of Antoine Griezmann. Alvaro Morata has been an able if slightly underwhelming target man, while the much-heralded, record-breaking new arrival to the Wanda in João Félix has only recently started to hit the stride that his £113m fee promised.
Elswhere, while Atlético’s squad on paper is as full of quality as it always is, there are signs that almost a decade of Simeone may be grating on even his most loyal lieutenants – the indefatigable Saúl Ñíguez has been rumoured to have had a disagreement or two with his boss over the course of the campaign, Thomas Partey and goalkeeper Jan Oblak have been subject to various transfer overtures this summer, while the usually ever-reliable Koke’s form has been patchy this year.
And yet, Simeone’s commitment to defensive excellence continues to abound, with the shrewd signings of Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier this summer mitigating the loss of Lucas Hernandez, not to mention the simultaneous departure of the iconic defensive trio comprised of Juanfran, Diego Godin and Filipe Luis. While Angel Correa, who has tested positive for coronavirus, will certainly be missed up top against Leipzig, the collective solidity of the side, though weaker than normal years, will present a formidable task for Nagelsmann and his charges.