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May 19, 2014

Monday Musings: Atletico teach us all a lesson

Simeone's victory with Atletico lays waste to the analytics of modern football.
Simeone's victory with Atletico lays waste to the analytics of modern football.

Teamwork, brotherhood, sacrifice, self-belief, intensity, hard work.

You know all these words. If you played sports at any level you probably had a coach who talked about them. A guy with a clipboard and a whistle -- sometimes a stopwatch, too -- telling you how these were the keys to success. Master them and you could achieve anything.

Odds are, when you got older you realized this wasn't true. These aren't keys; they're accessories. At least in professional sports.

They may make the difference between evenly matched teams but the basic building block is talent. And, for better or worse, because there are very clever people wheeling and dealing -- that's usually measured with money in the form of wage bills and net transfer spend.

Analytics guys will back me up on this. Spending -- on salaries and transfers -- is one of the prime predictors of success over the course of a season. Anything can happen in knockout tournaments but when you need to play everybody twice, harsh reality tends to railroad fairy tale endings. The biggest spenders don't always win, obviously, but the winners usually come from that same handful of haves rather than the multitudes of have-nots further down the table.

But then you see what Atletico Madrid has already achieved this season -- and what it can achieve next Saturday in Lisbon -- and you wonder whether your coaches were wrong.

There's no other real explanation for what we saw Saturday at the Camp Nou. Atletico needed to avoid defeat away to Barcelona. By the 22nd minute they had lost both Diego Costa -- the man who had notched 27 goals in 35 games this season -- and Arda Turan, their most unpredictable attacking option. Burning two substitutions in barely over twenty minutes was bad enough; losing your biggest offensive threats made it worse.

And then Barcelona scored. Not just any goal, mind you, but the kind of scything vicious finish from Alexis Sanchez that squeezed between defender, goalkeeper, goalpost and crossbar. If you were of a superstitious bent and an Atletico fan, this was probably the point when you realized fate was conspiring against you. This was Barca's day.

But the eleven guys in red and white felt differently. So too did "El Cholo," Diego Simeone.

We'll never know exactly what was said at half-time. Maybe he trotted out the same cliches coaches rely on. Maybe he told them that, as a player, he was the last man to give up and they were molded in his image. Or maybe he simply reminded them that they had been written off so many times this year only to prove everyone wrong that surely they could squeeze out one more against-all-odds miracle.

Whatever it was, they came out of the blocks with the kind of controlled uber-aggression that has become the hallmark of Simeone sides. David Villa came close twice, hitting the post once. And then, with Barcelona still reeling, they did what they pulled off so many times this year: a set-piece goal. Accurate delivery, precise movement, attackers setting picks and Diego Godin's head finding the ball and beating Pinto.

- Walker: 10 keys to Atletico's title

- Hunter: A dream come true

- Mitten: Atleti do it the hard way

The Barcelona of old might have been spurred into life. Not this one. This version had Lionel Messi as a passenger, Andres Iniesta as a pale ghost and, once he came on, Neymar as the squarest of pegs in Pedro's round hole. Still, the ending was nervy and frenetic as you'd expect, with Dani Alves, Sanchez and Javier Mascherano battling on until the final whistle.

Are Atletico worthy champions? Answer this: Does David Beckham look good in briefs?

They played Barcelona six times this season without losing. They beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu and drew at home in La Liga. (They were beaten twice in the Copa del Rey, but that was hardly a priority.) They won more points than anyone and more than held their own against the two biggest clubs in Spain.

That's a worthy champion.

When he was at Estudiantes, Simeone famously played Al Pacino's "Inches" speech from Any Given Sunday. We don't know if he pulled such a stunt with this crew but there is no question they squeezed every ounce of performance when it mattered.

It wasn't just about the teamwork and the spirit and all that intangible jazz, of course. Diego Costa may be a late bloomer, but over the past 18 months he has established himself as one of the as one of the most reliable goalscorers around -- as evidenced by 47 goals since January 1, 2013. Thibaut Courtois may have usurped Manuel Neuer's crown as the best keeper alive. It's nothing short of a travesty that neither Miranda nor Filipe Luis got a call from the Selecao when both would walk into almost any World Cup back four. And Godin is consistent, experienced and uncompromising; just what you need from a centre-back.

But the rest? Arda Turan and Adrian are intermittent geniuses, flashing lights whom Simeone made sure were "on" at the right time. Raul Garcia is a box-to-box supersub with a knack for set-pieces. Tiago is a luxury journeyman much like Jose Sosa and Diego, guys who never quite harnessed their skills but who could be role players for the greater good. Gabi is the kind of inspirational captain who glues a team together but struggles to lift it. Koke's a genuine talent albeit one who, at 22, is far from the finished article.

And then there's Villa. Signed amid much hype, the hope was that he would regain his pre-Barcelona form. Well, he did not. But once he realized he wasn't going to turn back the clock, he accepted his task as a blue-collar grafter. That's a credit to him and to Simeone.

Maybe your old coach was right. Maybe it's not about talent alone. Maybe if more believed in the old cliches, our leagues wouldn't be so imbalanced and we wouldn't be so obsessed with wage bills and net spends.

Simeone and Atletico taught us all a lesson this season. One we already know but too many of us had stopped believing.

The Martino era ends at Barcelona

Gerardo "Tata" Martino confirmed what many already knew after the home draw with Atletico: he would no longer be in charge next season.

You presume the outcome would have been the same even if Barcelona had won the title on Saturday, something that would have been anything but far-fetched: some better marking on the set-piece that led to Godin's goal and Tata would have ridden out of town with a Liga crown.

But it's evidence that you can't simply judge managers on results. You have to look at the broader picture, and what became clear to many is that it just wasn't working at the Camp Nou.

- Tomas: Barca must move on

- Delaney: Changing of the guard?

In fairness, there are mitigating factors. Sandro Rosell's resignation over the Neymar affair. Lionel Messi's injury and poor form upon his return. Victor Valdes' season-ending injury in March. The club's failure to sign a viable centre-back once it became clear that Carles Puyol was done and Marc Bartra may never make the grade. The fact that this was his first season working in Europe and only his second managing a club since 2006.

But then you look at the resources at his disposal and his failure to capture the hearts and minds of supporters and you can see why this change is happening.

Luis Enrique is the hot favorite to replace him and you can see what the club are thinking. Strictly speaking he's not a La Masia product, but he spent eight years at the club as a player, plus another three managing Barcelona B. He shares many of Pep Guardiola's values on the pitch despite the fact that his CV may be a little sparse: just two seasons of top flight football, one at Roma and one at Celta.

Roma underachieved and Celta overachieved, though in both cases he was applauded by the majority of supporters. If and when he's appointed at the Camp Nou, there will be plenty of time to analyze the choice.

Arsenal win a trophy, but what does it mean?

Arsenal won the FA Cup on Saturday, coming from behind to beat Hull 3-2, and all the nonsense about the number of trophy-less years goes away. Well, except for stuff like this (Yuk, yuk!).

It's not that silverware isn't important -- it obviously is -- it's just that it's not a great way to measure the progress (or lack thereof) of a team. Arsene Wenger was mocked for his "fourth place trophies" but in fact given the spend and the wages since the Gunners' second-to-last trophy back in 2005, it merely means that he's been consistently competitive. (The frustrating part is another one: the fact that someone, whether it's Wenger or the guys above him, choose not spend when they clearly have the resources to do it.)

- Wenger Takes All: Hirshey's FA Cup final diary

- McNicholas: Ramsey finds an extra gear

Rationally, winning a trophy where you've played every single game either at home or at Wembley is less impressive than finishing fourth. Particularly when you were taken to penalty kicks by a second division team like Wigan in the semifinal, or when Hull took you to extra-time in the final. And not just any Hull team, but one that was forced to play Matty Fryatt up front (no disrespect but there's a reason why he's 28 and has made a grand total of zero Premier League appearances) because Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long were unvailable.

Still, Arsenal showed fight and courage to get back into the game after going two goals down almost straight away. Had that not happened, we would have had months of the same chatter about leadership and guts. Instead they pushed on, created chances, had a couple of stonewall penalties turned away by Lee Probert, fluffed a sitter through Kieran Gibbs, hit the woodwork with Olivier Giroud and scored three times. Exactly what they're supposed to do.

But those celebrations at the end? Wenger saying it was "more important" than the two Doubles? It's hard to understand, but then I'm not an Arsenal fan. And I'm not Wenger. I'm not as invested in this club and his way of doing things. And if it was merely a case of reason going out the window and letting emotion take over, well, that's something worth celebrating too.

Bayern win two trophies but still underwhelm?

It may be the quietest Double in history. Bayern Munich's 2-0 extra-time win over Borussia Dortmund felt somewhat anti-climactic, such was the lingering disappointment over the manner of elimination in the Champions League semifinal at the hands of Real Madrid.

It wasn't much of a game; they looked like two tired, weary teams. Even the novelty of Bayern's 3-4-3 -- possibly something to revisit, though maybe not with Pierre Hojberg on the right and Rafinha on the left -- wore off pretty quickly. Arjen Robben did his usual party trick deep into extra-time and Thomas Mueller added a second at the end to seal the deal. There's no goal-line technology in Germany, so the referee failed to spot that Mats Hummels' header did cross the line, though replays suggested he was probably off-side.

All told Bayern did enough to win, bringing Guardiola's trophy haul to four (out of a possible six) for the season. Worse than Jupp Heynckes in the year of the Treble? Sure, qualitatively and undoubtedly. But too many forget what happened the year before, 2011-12, under Heynckes. Bayern finished eight points back in the Bundesliga, got hammered in the German Cup final (5-2) and contrived to lose the Champions League final at home. You can't blame Pep's tiki-taka for that.

- Schaaf: An unexpected double

The point is that this is a work in progress. Mistakes were made, sure. But there is no magic formula and there is a real danger in viewing the Heynckes Era through glasses that are a little too rose-tinted.

Juve's record, Conte's future

Juventus' 3-0 win over Cagliari mean they win the Serie A title, their third straight, with an incredible 102 points. That's a record for any team in any of Europe's top five leagues.

It's easy to point to the lack of competition in Serie A, couple it with Juve's poor results in Europe and scoff at the achievement. Easy and perhaps unfair. Juve may have steamrollered the rest of the league in terms of results, but not in terms of score lines. Fourteen of their 33 Serie A wins came in games decided by a single goal, which suggests that this team had to scrap and work more than some realize. As for the European shortcomings? Disappointing as they were it's also obvious Juventus were rarely, if ever, outplayed.

- Rzouki: Juve seal record points haul

Antonio Conte knows this, hence the delay in confirming that he'll stick around next season: he wants assurances about what will happen to his squad. There is lots of talk about whether Andrea Pirlo will extend his deal, whether Paul Pogba will be sold for an absurd amount to fund new signings and now even Arturo Vidal could be on the block.

My guess is Conte is trying to get the best possible deal for himself -- not in terms of financial compensation, but squad strength -- before he commits. But he will commit. The reality is that, despite the three consecutive Serie A titles, he's seen as unproven on the big European stage. And until that changes, he won't be in the running for any jobs bigger than Juve.

Safety reminder in Spain

Sunday saw disturbing scenes at Osasuna, where the collapse of a barrier led to 68 supporters being injured and conjured up the worst memories of the 1980s. As it happened the toll, thankfully, was minor: just ten were taken for hospital and, according to reports in Spain, there were no serious injuries.

Let it serve as a reminder that even today, in 2014, safety should be paramount. There is simply no excuse for stuff like this happening. Given the amounts of money that the game generates, fans are fully entitled to demand that all grounds conform to safety regulations.

Hamburg live to fight another season

Hamburg maintain their record as the only club to have played in every single Bundesliga season since its creation in 1963 following a nervy relegation play-off win on away goals against Greuther Furth.

- Dunbar: Short-lived joy as HSV face tough summer

This club still needs a major rebuild and is still paying for the mistakes it made in recent history. But returning to respectability still within the top-flight should be that much more manageable than doing it from the second tier.

Di Natale as good as ever

He did it again. A hat-trick on the final day of the Serie A season in Udinese's 3-3 draw with Sampdoria and Antonio Di Natale ends the campaign with 20 goals in all competitions (17 in the league). It's his fifth straight season of reaching the 20-goal mark and, simply put, it's a ridiculous achievement when you consider he turns 37 later this year.

In typical Di Natale fashion, he emotionally and tearfully announced his retirement after the 3-3 draw with Sampdoria only to change his mind shortly thereafter. "17 goals in Serie A is a lot, isn't it? Maybe I should continue."

It's a good point. If he manages just 13 goals next season -- again, an absurd achievement for most 37-year-olds, but not for him -- he'll pass Roberto Baggio and move into sixth place on the all-time list of Serie A top goalscorers.

Come on, Toto... one more year?

Petty Deschamps wasting his time?

France coach Didier Deschamps has reportedly filed a lawsuit against Samir Nasri's girlfirend, Anara Atanes. Her "crime?" She posted abusive tweets about Deschamps and France -- she later clarified that she meant the French team, not the country -- after Nasri was left out of the World Cup squad.

You'd think Deschamps and the French FA (who issued a statement supporting him) would have something better to do than lodge a complaint for something called "public insult" what with Brazil 2014 some 3 weeks away and all, wouldn't you?

Atanes isn't French. She doesn't live in France. Can you really be the subject to legal action for insulting a public figure in a non-libelous way via

Twitter?

What seems obvious here, if anything, is that Deschamps has too much on his hands. And that the bad blood between him and Nasri won't get any better any time soon.