More and more, football is becoming a game about managers. The pressure and the spotlight is all on them, and much of the analysis is focused squarely on whether or not the manager made the right call. When some can be sacked after just four games, you know it’s serious.
We’re reaching the era of the super club, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Premier League, where a top six category of club is emerging and taking a monopoly on the European places and the silverware. And each of the top clubs has a top manager: we now talk about Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool or Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
And when Chelsea face Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night, you get the feeling that despite all of the hype there could be around such a fixture, the focus will be on the two men on the touchline.
This is Atleti’s first big game at their new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano. It’s a European night under the floodlights against one of the best teams in Europe. After drawing frustratingly away to Roma, the Spanish side are playing catch up in the group to a certain extent now. Their home game with Chelsea is a must-win if they want to top the group, and so tension will be heightened.
Add to that the fact that Chelsea are on form, Madrid are starting to come into form after a sluggish start to the season, and the fact that Diego Costa is moving between the clubs and back to what seems like his spiritual home – add all that together and you get the makings of a modern classic. But when you have Diego Simeone and Antonio Conte pacing the same touchline in the Champions League, that’s the story.
Over the last few years, Simeone has been one of the most entertaining watches in European football, whatever about the football. His touchline manner, his aggression and passion that boils up to the surface are cinematic gold and the fact he does it all in his black suit and black shirt combo seems to emphasise the madness. He is unique.
Or, perhaps, not quite so unique. Because Conte gives off a similar vibe. Sure, Conte doesn’t have the street fighter persona, nor does he seem to embody his team’s dogged personality quite so visually as the Argentine coach does. But the mannerisms are there.
The two share a similar soul, not just the managers, but their respective teams, too. They are both sides who seem to favour the organisation of a solid defence above the pretty patterns that Pep Guardiola’s teams tend to prefer. They are dogged teams who grind down the opposition, winning at whatever cost, in their managers’ image. It’s all about winning, and they try to create an atmosphere where the togetherness of the squad makes that more likely. And both teams combine that team ethic with fabulous individuals, too. No man represents that more than Diego Costa.
The Brazilian’s spiritual home really is Atletico Madrid, but you can see why he was such a good fit at Chelsea until Conte decided that Costa was, perhaps, too inconsistent with his performances over the course of a season.
Costa is Mr Bad Guy, the pantomime villain. But in the stories, villains are the bad guys because they’re evil, they’re villains because that’s how they can manage to succeed. And that sums up both Conte and Simeone in a nutshell, the whole point is finding a way to succeed.
Whatever happens on the pitch though, you can bet that there will be at least similar levels of entertainment in the dugouts on Wednesday night.