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Is Jorge Sampaoli Overtaking Diego Simeone on the Superclub Wish List?
Bang, bang, bang and bang, get the hell out of here. It started in the 25th minute, and by the 35th minute, it was all over—four goals in no time, an opponent buried with blistering speed and a good dash of swagger thrown in. Afterward, Jorge Sampaoli was asked what he thought of it all. "We had our opponents at our mercy," he said.
Sampaoli doesn't take any backward steps and, evidently, nor do his team. The Argentinian has got Sevilla playing the way he talks, and that's quite something. Sampaoli, after all, is a man who speaks of rebellion, of rejecting perceived barriers and of the adherence to an encompassing idea or an identity. He's getting all of it, too.
Saturday night's 4-1 mauling of Malaga took Sevilla into the Christmas break in third place in La Liga, just a single point behind Barcelona after 16 games. No team not named Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid have had this many points at this stage in the last five years, and the style they're doing it in is captivating.
"I'm delighted with the performance and that we have earned the respect of everyone for the way we are playing," Sampaoli said.
Suddenly, Sevilla, and not Atletico, look like the challengers to Spain's hegemonic pair right now. The two clubs have reached the midseason break in different moods, and the tone of their managers' messages seemed to neatly reflect such.
Whereas Sampaoli spoke bullishly of what's ahead, Diego Simeone was talking about recovery. "Maybe this break now will be useful for us to rest, get busy and find better solutions so the team can respond better," the Atletico boss said earlier on the same day.
There's something in the way Sevilla and Atletico head into this short layoff that leaves one with the impression that these are teams and managers perhaps not quite heading in different directions but standing at different points on the curve.
Sampaoli looks to be on an upward swing. He's taken a team and a club with an already strong sense of self and made them vastly better. By contrast, there's a growing sense that Simeone has already reached the mountaintop with regard to his work at the Vicente Calderon and is now taking the first few steps on the other side.
Pitching up at the summit and staying there are two different things, after all. It was barely more than six months ago that Simeone was being marvelled at all over Europe. His Atletico had taken down Barcelona and then Bayern Munich in the Champions League, hustling and sucker-punching the giants to blow apart the established order.
In the middle of it all, Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport declared Simeone the leader of the revolt against tiki taka. It depicted him as Che Guevara; he could just have easily been depicted as King Leonidas from 300.
What he was doing with limited resources was astonishing. Transforming an entire club, he made many wonder whether there would be any limits if he was given the resources others had. What if he had Manchester United's money to spend? Or Chelsea's? Or Juventus'? No manager outside the superclubs was more sought-after. But is that changing?
Only half a season down the line, there's now a sense that the Simeone era at Atletico is winding down. The loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Milan, a second crushing blow in three seasons, has left behind a sort of hangover that's been difficult to overcome. Amid that, the Argentinian's negotiation of a reduction in his contract and his candid admissions that he one day wants to manage Inter Milan have left the impression of a man putting down the first steps of an exit strategy.
It's the momentum of the club that has changed, then. Atletico don't look quite the same. An evolutionary process toward a more expansive and attacking approach has proved more problematic than envisioned. This is the club's best squad in Simeone's tenure but this is also their worst-ever start under him. It's almost as though the added talent has become a complication; like more is less for a club and a manager who've thrived with comparatively little.
But there's maybe more to it than that, too. The ferocity of Atleti and their leader has faded a touch, the defining trait of the team not quite what it was.
The natural inclination is to see it as a sort of fatigue, that playing the way they have and they do is hard; that the toll of slogging it out with unfashionable but staggeringly effective football is now catching up with them.
In the world of superclubs, that issue of fashion is important here. Style matters as much as results in an era when the fight for eyeballs, commercial partners and revenue streams is as hot as the fight for trophies. Despite his incredible success, stylistically, Simeone has been as fashionable as sneakers with loose denim. Sampaoli, though, hipster glasses and all, couldn't be more on trend.
The Sevilla boss is a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa and known for his bold, high-pressing systems that are all the rage around Europe at present. Under Sampaoli, the Andalucians have been aggressive to the point of being frantic in just the same way Sampaoli's Chile were.
The Argentinian has switched between a back four and a back three this season. He's also used wingers like Vitolo at full-back at times and has opted for wing-backs positioned so high they've been more part of the front line than the last.
In the opening game of the season, Sampaoli's system was almost a 2-1-5-2 and produced a 6-4 win against Espanyol. More recently, Sevilla ran over the top of Atletico, and then they morphed into Barcelona for a half against Barcelona. On Saturday came the hammering of Malaga; on Wednesday, they put nine past Formentera in the Copa del Rey.
Suddenly, it might be Sampaoli who's standing at the head of the superclub wish list. He was linked heavily with Chelsea before Antonio Conte got the job in west London, as reported by The Telegraph in February, and is now considered a leading candidate to take over at Barcelona if and when Luis Enrique decides to step away. And others will be taking notice, too.
This surge is unfolding on the back of Sevilla again being forced to part with two of their best in summer in the form of Kevin Gameiro and Grzegorz Krychowiak. The restructuring was massive, and several prominent faces who've arrived are only loanees.
Like Simeone before him, then, Sampaoli is beginning to challenge the status quo in a way that defies the game's financial trajectory. His talk of rebellion is materialising, but in contrast to his compatriot, he's doing it in the most fashionable style around.