Atletico Madrid maintained its unbeaten record in LaLiga on Sunday, thanks to a 1-0 home win over Deportivo de la Coruna. However, the three points came at a price Diego Simeone did not intend to pay.
What seemed like a typical battle for the ball ended with Augusto Fernandez on the floor clutching his right knee In agony, Antoine Griezmann motioning furiously for the medical staff and a post-match diagnosis of a torn right ACL. Augusto’s 2016-17 season is probably over after just three games and 143 minutes.
Augusto’s injury - which will result in his second long-term layoff since joining in January - leaves Atletico a man shorter in midfield. What’s more, his role as a destroyer is unique to the squad; Gabi is really the only other type of player in this team dedicated to that role. While Atleti have started to move away from the physicality that once defined them under Simeone, the manager still likes to have a player in that mold on the pitch - especially in the big league or Champions League games in which Atleti will ring up 30% possession or less. Augusto wasn’t the type to play in 40 or 50 games, but his playing style and experience made him a trusted centrocampista, a direct request of Simeone’s last year.
In the interim, Augusto’s absence may mean Tiago - the man he was signed to replace, ironically - gets more minutes in central midfield. The Portuguese was a crucial cog for Simeone before suffering a devastating leg injury of his own last November. Tiago is a different kind of player than Augusto; he’s a tempo-setter, a midfield pendulum who wins his battles with guile over grit. Tiago has been at Atletico since Simeone arrived and Cholo has always trusted the 35-year-old, which points to his making the appearances Augusto would have made otherwise.
There also exists the possibility that Saul is asked to shield the back four more often than he would usually. After all, Tiago did break his leg last year and is out currently with a hamstring tweak he suffered in Eindhoven earlier this month. Saul is a big weapon when playing higher up the pitch, but he is more than up to the challenge of shielding the back four and breaking up play. Simeone may elect to use this approach in those aforementioned games against other elite sides, setting up in a 4-1-4-1 with Saul playing behind a potential Nicolas Gaitan-Gabi-Koke-Yannick Carrasco quartet or an alignment with Griezmann dropping to a wing and one of Carrasco/Gaitan on the bench.
Augusto’s unexpected ACL tear creates a bit of a headache for Simeone and compromises Atletico’s midfield insurance. The team’s depth in midfield won’t be put to the ultimate test or anything of that nature, as Atletico have a few players capable of filling his role over a long season. But this makes you remember that football is a fragile game and a nine-month season has many twists and turns. Augusto’s rotten injury luck and the decisions that need to be made moving forward are a reminder of that.