Session Design with Diego Simeone

For over ten years, Diego Simeone has developed a team that has led the way in world football with their organization and intensity on both sides of the ball. Although I have not had the fortune to sit down with the coach himself, there are some clues online as to how Simeone organizes his sessions and they are certainly unique. Session design is a topic that has fascinated me for a number of years and something that I also addressed on a recent webinar here - MSC: Designing Your Pre-Season Sessions. With so many resources and information outlets today, it is easy to get an outline of how a session should flow and ideas you can work on. What is more challenging however, is aligning your work on the training field with exactly how you want your team to play. The higher the level, the more detail this process involves because scouting, science and player profiling become much more prominent.

Below are some specific exercises that I have seen which either challenge conventional coaching practice or can inspire us to rethink and progress our current thoughts with regard to detail and organization.

Exercise One: 1v2 Attacking Under-Load

This is a common exercise set-up for a lot of coaches, but the difference between this and most similar set-ups is that it is actually an attacking under-load with the second player recovering, rather than a 2v1 towards goal. This challenges the second defender to get to a recovery position immediately, which then allows the first defender to be really aggressive with their stepping. Sometimes in traditional 1v1 exercises, defenders back up to reduce space, but that is not what Atletico are about. With exercises like this you can see how Simeone places a premium on recovering underneath the ball. Below is an animation and clip of the exercise.

Recovering into a defensive position with precision and urgency have been a hallmark of Simeone's teams for years. Below is a clip from a game against Real Madrid in 2017. You can see when the video pauses that the second defender is a fair distance from Cristiano Ronaldo when he breaks away. Even more impressive perhaps is the fact that the second defender was Juanfran who was 32 years of age at the time.

Exercise Two: Individual Screening Functional Work

This is an individual positional screening activity, where the player begins blocking a pass into two mini-goals and then changes direction to block a goal to their right side. The key detail which I took from this is that, although this initially seems like an interception exercise, the fact that the player must step forward before the second ball means that you are conditioning players to defend on the front foot and being proactive about forcing a mistake. The third ball then changes the angle to another goal so that the player must continually adjust and be prepared to change positions in relation to the ball. Again, this communicates to the player that they cannot sit in one position and await an interception or mistake from the opposition and the ability to adapt positioning at speed can help the team in their defensive shape. Below is an animation and clip of the exercise.

Exercise Three: Team Defensive Activity

This is one of my favorite exercises because the design seems to split the defensive duties of the team into three areas: high press, wide traps, and defending in the box. Again, a common theme with Simeone's design is that it is relatively simple and compartmentalizes the game and the roles within each area. However, the specificity and the intensity of the exercise also delivers the aspect of game realism and seems to communicates exactly what is expected on the pitch. In the animation below you can see that the exercise begins with a 3v3 pressing activity in which the blue team can use the goalkeeper as a bounce player to create a 4v3, and the pressing team can score in the goal if they win possession. Once that finishes, the exercise moves into the wide area where it looks to replicate a full-back in possession and compressing the play defensively into a 4v4 scenario. The next part of the exercise occurs with a 4v5 in the central defensive area where they are defending a cross, and then a second pass into the forwards feet. The set then wraps up with the other wide area so that all four zones on the pitch are worked on.

Below is the activity done with the Atletico players. I think the timing here is interesting in terms of the duration of each set and the reps. This is obviously aligned with the Sport Science department at the club, as well as the intensity that is consistent with Simeone's sides. With a schedule that incorporates European competitions and travel, it can be difficult to keep that intensity in the sessions, so to get a potential insight into how this is achieved is fascinating from my own personal perspective.

Exercise Four: 4v4+2 Defensive Shifting Game

This positional 'fussball' game is quite a common one for coaches to use when working on defensive shape and being compact both vertically and horizontally. Where Simeone changes the game slightly is the positions of the two target players nearest to the mini-goals. Their positioning highlights that central compactness that Simeone seems to prioritize with his teams and cutting off that pass into inside channels prevents opponents from accessing high-value positions on the pitch. In addition, similar to Exercise Two, Simeone seems to encourage defensive players to minimize the vertical space, even when they are defending in a block. That way pressure is always applied and the passer cannot find easy options ahead of the ball. Below is an animation and clip of the exercise.

Sometimes the longer you spend with a team, the more comfortable you can become when it comes to session design and implementing daily processes. Balancing these two dynamics is a real art form for a coach and one that is probably under-estimated when we are taking about our own personal philosophies. Consistent processes are certainly required for staff and players to come in every day and focus on what matters most. However, if consistency becomes mundane, it generally moves towards complacency and then intensity and performance can trend in a downward direction. The fact that Simeone has consistently achieved with different personnel at Atletico Madrid tells us that the level of engagement that he has achieved is seemingly quite high. When we observe any training sessions and see the 'why' and detail behind what he is doing, I think that's a big reason too. The exercises are a little different than conventional methods, but the consistency between the style of football that they look to play is there for all to see. I think that is a great message to send to coaches when we are looking at designing and inspiring thought from our own teams.

This article was written by Gary Curneen. If you enjoy the ideas and are looking for more on session design and breakdowns, please check out the Modern Soccer Coach books here.