Even when a contract extension in La Liga - or two, in this case - doesn’t involve Real Madrid, there’s still a tacit nod towards their presence. Santiago Solari’s side, lead by the excitement of Vinicius, had won five consecutive league matches at the time, including a 3-1 win over Atletico Madrid. They had improbably found themselves within striking distance of the league title. With the reigning European champions rounding into form, Atletico Madrid announced a contract extension for Diego Simeone through 2022 last Thursday. Barcelona followed the next day, announcing a one-year extension for Ernesto Valverde, with an option for 2020. The back-to-back announcements backed continuity, a contrast to Real Madrid’s quick firing of Julen Lopetegui earlier this season.
“The only way you can reach four years here is by winning titles,” explained Ernesto Valverde, tempering his moment after signing the extension. He added “We’re obliged to win and to win titles, it’s the only way this club can be, I’m clear about that.” The extension surprised many, including maybe Valverde himself. He admitted just last month that he didn’t know whether he was going to continue with the club despite winning the league and a Copa del Rey in his first season. His initial two-year contract represented an easy out for the club.
Valverde got it half right in his discussion of winning trophies as a manager cannot just win at Barcelona, they must win by pushing the bounds of attacking football. Yet there will be little in the way of longing tactical discussions when looking back at Valverde’s era with the club. His use of a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formation is hamstrung by an aging group of veteran players who have enough locker room influence to not get dropped. Barcelona continue to get points not necessarily by a structural or tactical advantage, but through individual, match-winning moments delivered by Messi, Luis Suarez, or Ousmane Dembele.
Of course, there are other components of being an effective manager outside of innovation, with locker room togetherness just as important. Suarez expressed his surprise last month that Valverde had yet to receive a contract extension considering how happy the side are under his guidance. Sergio Busquets stated his delight following the contract extension, adding that Valverde could now relax. As one columnist put it, while Valverde is not Pep Guardiola, he does provide managerial stability unlike Real Madrid, and is also able to make the most out of low-cost transfer moves like Arturo Vidal and Kevin-Prince Boateng.
And Messi’s happiness is the most important factor to consider, especially as the Argentine is up for a contract renewal of his own. Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu stated he wants Messi to play at Barcelona “forever” - which, in football terms, represents a five-year extension. Perhaps Barcelona learned from Jorge Sampaoli’s short tenure with Argentina that stability is the key to building around Messi’s late-stage career. And had Barcelona decided to look elsewhere, who were the options? A big name such as Antonio Conte? Asking Quique Setien to make the step he’s been longing for? Any attempt to re-energize the side through forward-looking tactics risks both team alienation and results, whereas Valverde has already won trophies and is well-liked.
Bartomeu also added that Barcelona must plan for a life without Messi, and perhaps that would be the right time to search for the next wunderkid European manager. For now, Valverde is tasked with seeing out the twilight of Messi’s career despite the frustration from analysts and supporters alike where each loss is blamed on his lack of imagination, and every win on Messi’s brilliance. His predecessor Luis Enrique simply said “I need to rest” when he left Barcelona, describing the exhaustion of always searching for improvements and the obsession of problem solving. From that perspective, winning at Barcelona is the easy part.
Atletico Madrid’s starting 11 that beat Juventus 2-0 in the first-leg of their Champions League round has been with the side for a combined 95 years, with Koke in his 19th season with the club. Where continuity breeds boredom and signals stagnation with Barcelona, that same continuity defines Atleti’s inspiration and strength. As Atleti president Enrique Cerezo explained following the win, “for Atleti, el Cholismo is everything.”
With seven years at the club, Simeone was already the longest-serving manager in La Liga. Even more remarkable is that he’s had this much success with largely the same philosophy and style as when he took over the club in 2011. Simeone’s 4-4-2 is a symbol of disruption and defiance. No other manager in Europe is so synonymous with a shape as the Argentine. Season after season, we wait for Atleti’s intensity to fall apart. How many can a side win 1-0, after all? Simeone has tried to grow by adding various strikers and wingers throughout his tenure, changing shape to a less-taxing 433 structure before eventually going back to the foundation. But there is something in the low defensive block, with two lines or four, that brings out a primal instinct in both team and maanger.
“Do I have to continue with Atletico, or is it the end of a cycle?” asked Simeone following their 2016 Champions League finals loss to Real Madrid in penalties. The was the only time Simeone ever publicly mentioned a life post-Atleti, though he later clarified that he was caught up in the moment. A three-year sequence since has reinvigorated the Argentine: the club opened the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. Diego Costa returned, and Antoine Griezmann subsequently stayed. He managed to turn over previous stalwarts like Gabi and Miranda into Jose Gimenez and Thomas Partey, two young players that kept the same Cholo-ism mentality. With resources and a new stadium, one could imagine an infinite loop of 4-4-2 renewal at Atleti.
And unlike Valverde, Simeone will be adored regardless. How can two teams searching for continuity feel so different? Even with Valverde more successful from a trophy standpoint last season, his signing feels like an existential acceptance that Messi must carry the team until he’s physically unable to. That over-reliance on Messi, as well as Real Madrid’s volatility, makes beating the two sides as attainable as ever for Simeone. In explaining why he would see out his contract following that Champions League loss to Real Madrid, Simeone stated that he would remain because only Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich were better than his side. All three teams he listed have gone through new managers since, and have struggled in their own right to turn over a new generation. There is undoubtedly an emotional component, but Simeone continuing his Atleti project for at least another three seasons is just as grounded in pragmatism.