When this decade comes to its close on New Year’s Eve in December 2019, one of the teams to have defined the decade in football will be the Atlético Madrid of Diego Simeone. After Simeone joined the club in December 2011 with the club hovering just above the relegation zone the rise to the top of European football has been quick and highly impressive. The number of fantastic players to show off their talent at the Vicente Calderón for Simeone’s side includes Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa, David Villa, Antoine Griezmann, Arda Turan and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco to select a few. The squad has seen massive changes throughout Simeone’s tenure with the stars being sold on after impressing in Madrid.
In fact, of the players in the squad when Simeone was handed the reins, only a select few trusted stalwarts remain; Diego Godín, the rock at the heart of defence; Filipe Luis, who did left for Chelsea after a stunning 2013-14 campaign but returned a year later; Juanfran, the winger Simeone turned into Europe’s best right back; Tiago, the Portuguese strategist in midfield who remains at the club but rarely appears; youth products Koke and Saúl who has developed into top class midfielders under Simeone; and finally the captain, Gabi.
Gabi. Despite being a key player in one of Europe’s best football teams in the last five years, Gabi remains surprisingly unknown. Everybody knows Griezmann, just like everybody knew Costa and before him Falcao. Yet, the most important player for Simeone during this period of constant over-achievement in the toughest league in Europe is grossly underrated and startlingly unheralded. Yes, Godín has been the bedrock of that immense defence and Koke’s passing and creativity has been vital since he forced his way into the starting eleven but Gabi has been so phenomenally consistent in midfield that he deserves more attention.
Gabi grew up an Atlético fan and came through the ranks to finally make his debut in 2004 when he lined up in midfield alongside a certain Diego Simeone. He wasn’t able to establish himself as a permanent fixture in the side and joined Getafe on loan during the 2004/05 season where he was a regular and returned to Atlético with 32 league matches under his belt. The following two seasons saw him make 52 league appearances for his beloved Atlético but the new manager Javier Aguirre opted to sell the academy graduate to Zaragoza in 2007. Gabi left and became a Zaragoza hero by making 144 appearances for the club during four seasons where he spent the last two as captain.
“I’ve always dreamed of where I am today, getting into the first team and to be an important player. I did not only want to be a footballer, I wanted to play for Atletico.”
In the summer of 2011 though, Gabi wanted to come home and Atlético wanted him back. After a poor start to the season for the club, manager Gregorio Manzano was relieved of his duties and Diego Simeone was handed the reins. Atlético’s fortunes changed dramatically as Simeone reinvigorated the club and led them to the 2012 Europa League final against Athletic Club where Gabi captained the side to a strong 3-0 win. Simeone had immediately made his presence felt and was just beginning in his quest to change the culture of the club. To do that he needed his own voice on the pitch, and made Gabi his permanent captain for the following campaign.
“He has all the attributes needed to lead this team. I see a lot of myself in him”
-Diego Simeone on his captain
The 2012/13 season was another step forward for Atlético as they finished third in La Liga behind Barcelona and Real Madrid and thus qualifying for the 2013/14 Champions League. Before the league season started though, Gabi and Simeone added another trophy with the destruction of Chelsea in the 2012 UEFA Super Cup with Radamel Falcao starring for the Spanish side. Atlético had developed a taste for winning by now and when they went up against their city rivals at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Copa Del Rey final they proved a worthy opponent of their illustrious competitor Real Madrid. In an ill-tempered and heated contest the game went to extra time where Simeone’s fierce soldiers emerged victorious after Joao Miranda headed home the winner. Gabi and his teammates had for the first time beaten Real and Barcelona to a trophy they all contested and, furthermore, beat Real for the first time in 14 years and 25 derbies. Also, Gabi had led his teammates to back to back trophy seasons for Atlético for the first time since 1992.
Diego Simeone and his on pitch general, the inspirational captain Gabi.
The following season would bring with it their biggest achievement to date. Simeone’s men were fantastic throughout the league season and challenged Barcelona and Real all the way for the title. On the final day of the season, Atlético needed only one point to clinch their first league title since 1996. That point wouldn’t be straightforward, though, as they went up against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in a showdown clash for the title. A win for Barca would give them the title while a draw or Atlético win would see them lift the trophy. Gabi, obviously, captained an extremely strong away side that soaked up pressure from their hosts early on. There would be devastation though, as the two main attacking stars of the season, Diego Costa and Arda Turan, limped off injured in the first half. When Alexis Sanchez put Barca 1-0 up before halftime it seemed as though there would be no fairytale ending to Atlético’s season. However, Simeone must have inspired his players in the dressing room and Gabi led the team in a battling second half performance. The equaliser came quickly, already four minutes into the second half. Gabi’s corner was met by the towering Godín and the two leaders had brought Atléti level.
For the rest of the game they worked, they defended and they didn’t concede. At the final whistle, Gabi fell to the ground in tears. His first league title with his hometown club, what a day for the midfielder who assisted probably the biggest goal in his club’s history.
“You have to make the most of the gifts you’ve been given, and for us that means a lot of hard work and slog.”
-Gabi on his Atlético Madrid
A week later, Gabi led his teammates into another battle, this time for the Champions League crown against city rivals Real Madrid. Godín scored once again to put Atléti 1-0 up, but Sergio Ramos 93rd minute header rescued Real at the death. They then proceeded to score three in extra time and win the trophy. Atléti were devastated, but the season still was nothing but an outstanding achievement. Atléti had defeated the two global superpowers with a fraction of their budget to win a historic title.
“This club represents very useful values in life: work, effort, sacrifice, realising that you are nobody without the team.”
In the soon-to-be three years since that title win, Atléti have reached another Champions League final, in 2016, again losing to Real, this time on penalties (Gabi scored his). They remain the finest defensive team we’ve witnessed in the last decade and their style has inspired others to great success. The consistency and quality of Simeone’s side were further emphasised this week as Atlético reached their third Champions League semifinal in four years. They have been one of the best teams of the last few years and truly established themselves at the top and Gabi has been the general of this team.
“We have to be proud of this team. Starting tomorrow, we have to keep working. This is what is kind and cruel about football. The important thing is to be there and I am convinced that this team is going to come back to win a Champions League because it deserves it.”
– Gabi after the 2016 Champions League final loss.
Gabi rarely scores, but this derby strike was absolutely sensational.
Gabi has been the glue holding it all together throughout these years of success. While Simeone have had no problem changing strikers, forwards and wingers to keep Atlético performing, the likes of Godín, Juanfran and Filipe Luis have been largely ever-present in defence. In midfield, Gabi has been instrumental from the very beginning. Simeone has found a player so similar to himself in terms of leadership and attitude on the pitch that it’s almost uncanny. Since his return to Madrid in 2011, Gabi has never played less than 46 times for the club and he won’t this campaign either. In a team full of top class footballers Gabi has been ever-present. A leader on and off the pitch in Atlético Madrid’s best team ever and has amassed 292 performances in his second spell alone, bringing his total appearances for Atlético to 360 matches to date.
Always deployed as one of the two central midfielders in Simeone’s 4-4-2, Gabi has been key with his tackling, positioning, blocks, interceptions and workrate. His energy sees him get up and down the pitch, even at 33, and his aggression has set the tone for his teammates to follow. Gabi has dictated their passing with excellent distribution of the ball with clean passes to break opposition lines and also to just retain possession. He’s so intelligent on the pitch that it’s almost criminal that he’s still so unheralded. This is a player whose performances means he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the best midfielders around. It remains an enigma that one of Europe’s best midfielders hasn’t been capped by his country, but it is also a testament to the embarrassment of riches in Spain’s midfield department.
To Gabi, it probably doesn’t matter anyway. His dream was to play for Atlético Madrid. He’s done that. He’s captained them to their greatest ever achievement in winning the La Liga in 2013/14 and he’s been a key man in their strongest ever team over a period of six years. Gabi exudes class both on and off the pitch and is a great credit to his club. If you ask fans at the Vicente Calderón who the best midfielder in Europe has been over the last five seasons they wouldn’t hesitate to mention his name. Diego Simeone would tell you the same thing. Still, that regret of not having lifted the Champions League for his club lingers. In 2017 they have the chance again. First they have to find a way past the Real Madrid that have knocked them out three years in succession. Simeone likely already has a gameplan in mind.
We all know it’ll include his talismanic captain.