Christmas of 2011 came two days early for fans of Atletico Madrid, although they might not have realised it at the time.
Gregorio Manzano had been sacked on the 22nd, with Atletico sitting tenth in La Liga, to be replaced by former player Diego Simeone a day later.
Simeone was only five years into his managerial career, spent in Argentina and Italy, but had already experienced plenty of ups and downs.
El Cholo won trophies with Estudiantes and River Plate, and helped Catania to avoid relegation from Serie A, but also resigned from River and San Lorenzo after poor results.
However when Atletico came calling there was no hesitation in ending his six-month spell at Racing Club to rejoin the team he’d spent five years playing for.
So how did Simeone set about turning Atletico from a mid-table La Liga outfit into consistent Champions League contenders?
Establishing a winning mentality
With Simeone catapulted in midway through the 2011/12 season his first priority was to settle the side.
Atletico’s league form picked up, sparked by an unbeaten seven-game run upon Simeone’s arrival, helping the side to finish 5th in the league.
But it was in the Europa League that Simeone’s Atletico really shined. Atletico won all nine Europa League games under Simeone to lift the trophy, beating Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in the final.
The undoubted star of the show was Radamel Falcao who scored eight goals in the knockout stage. But equally impressive was Simeone’s settled back four, protected by the unrelenting presence of Gabi.
The £2.5million arrival from Real Zaragoza cleaned up in midfield, making life easy for Diego Godin and Miranda in the centre of defence. His contribution to Atletico’s emergence as a European giant can’t be underestimated.
Stingy summer gives Diego a home
Simeone’s first summer transfer window at Atletico was either shrewd or stingy, depending on how you look at it.
Out went Eduardo Salvio and Alvaro Dominguez for a combined £16mil, in came two returning loanees who would have a major role to play under Simeone.
The first was Raul Garcia, who’d spent the previous season at Osasuna, and the second was Diego Costa who’d impressed with Rayo Vallecano.
Costa’s brash, aggressive style perfectly suited Simeone’s tactics and the Brazilian turned Spaniard responded with 37 league goals in the next two seasons, winning La Liga, the UEFA Super Cup and a Copa del Rey trophy under the Argentinian before leaving for Chelsea.
Establishing a defensive spine
Simeone’s first full season in charge saw Atletico win the Copa del Rey and UEFA Super Cup whilst establishing a firm identity.
This identity was exemplified by one of the strongest spines in Europe- Thibaut Courtois, Diego Godin, Gabi and Falcao.
Even when Falcao left to join Monaco in a £50m deal he was replaced by Costa, allowing money to be spent on Toby Alderweireld, David Villa, Jose Gimenez and Diego.
All this prepared Atletico for the iconic 2013/14 La Liga season.
4-4-2 with a twist
Simeone’s 4-4-2 formation rarely changed during Atletico’s 2013/14 campaign, but it varied wildly from the traditional use of the tactic, in which the wingers hug the touchline and stretch the pitch.
Instead Tiago and Gabi played deep, with Koke and Raul Garcia playing slightly higher up to allow full-backs Felipe Luis and Juanfran room to maraud up the flanks.
Villa and Costa dovetailed up front, but the entire team was keyed into Simeone’s wolfpack mentality which saw Atletico hunt the ball back in packs and brutally turn over possession.
It might not have been pretty, but Atletico bludgeoned their way to a La Liga title, as well as reaching the finals of the Champions League and semi-finals of the Copa del Rey.
Simeone continues to strike out
Atletico have had a long tradition of replacing class with class when it comes to strikers.
Simeone has continued that, firstly by using Costa as a replacement for Falcao rather than spending millions on a new player, and secondly when he replaced Costa with Antoine Griezmann.
Griezmann arrived at Atletico for £7m less than the £32m Chelsea spent on Costa, scoring 22 league goals in his first and second seasons at the club.
Atletico can expect to receive quadruple that fee if and when Griezmann leaves the Vincente Calderon. Now the question is can he repeat his success in the transfer market?
Building for the future
The most exciting aspect of Simeone’s success is that the bulk of Atletico’s key players are still young.
Koke, Griezmann, Saul Niguez, Yannick Carrasco, Gimenez, Griezmann and Jan Oblak are all under the age of 27.
The only issues is whether Simeone has the energy to continue battling Barcelona and Real Madrid, or if he feels he’s taken the squad as far as he can.
Either way, he’s going to be a hero at Altetico for years to come. Rarely has one man transformed a club so quickly and emphatically. Someone get the man a statue.