Hello and welcome to our Seasonal Player Ratings series! We’ll be analyzing each member of Atlético Madrid’s 2016-17 squad in the coming days as part of our season review. We’re kicking off our ratings with a look at Atlético’s midfield, which suffered from injuries and inconsistency throughout the season and the area of the squad Diego Simeone most needs to retool this summer.
Alessio Cerci: N/A
He may be a perfect 10 in our hearts, but Cerci played just 14 league minutes this season in a blowout of Osasuna on April 15. The Italian’s Liga Santander nightmare will end this summer as his contract will expire and Atlético will try to replace him with a footballer.
Augusto Fernández: N/A
Augusto tore his right ACL in a 1-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruña on Sept. 25 and missed the rest of the season. Heartbreaking, as it was the latest in a string of injuries for the Argentine since his arrival from Celta Vigo in 2015. Atlético badly missed his doggedness in the center of the park and Simeone found it harder to rotate without him. His return next season will be very much welcome, although he is 31 now and has to show he can stay fit for a whole season.
Tiago got the send-off he deserved in the season finale against Athletic Bilbao, when he took the captain’s band and was serenaded as he left the pitch in tears following his substitution. Prior to his December knee injury, Simeone brought the Portuguese back into the team, and he responded with a few solid individual performances - particularly in the Champions League against PSV Eindhoven - before he missed four months and the entire Copa del Rey semifinal run. He scored his final Atlético goal back in October in the 7-1 thrashing of Granada and is set to join the coaching staff.
Nicolás Gaitán: 6.4
The blame does not rest solely on Gaitán’s shoulders after his disappointing first - and possibly only - season at Atlético. The long-term Simeone target was on a short leash from the opening weeks and did not get into many high-leverage situations where his range of passing and versatility could be utilized. He made just 11 league starts, mostly against sides in the bottom half, and appeared in less than half of Atleti’s Champions League games. Atleti won one Copa del Rey game in which he started. Not good. But while Cholo was inconsistent in using his compatriot, Gaitán’s work rate was questionable and he never hit form despite glimpses against Granada and Real Betis (the teams he scored against).
Thomas Partey: 6.8
Thomas got semi-regular football in 2016-17 - over 800 minutes’ worth between LaLiga and the Champions League - which meant we got to celebrate Partey Time a bit more. More importantly, he has probably shown Simeone that he can be a reliable option in midfield (and at right back). He scored once in LaLiga and assisted on two other goals. The Ghanaian’s athleticism, physicality and burgeoning attacking game are all useful in Atlético’s midfield quartet, but he must continue to develop. He may not develop into a starter at Atleti, but no doubt he can offer lots of value. Play him more next year, Cholo.
Yannick Carrasco: 7
Carrasco took a step forward this season, but just how big that step was is up for debate. The Belgian was Atlético’s third-highest scorer with 14 goals in all competitions and could dazzle with his blinding speed, super dribbling and fierce shot. However, here are the teams he scored against this term: Granada (3), Osasuna (3), Málaga (2), Celta Vigo and Sporting Gijón. In the Champions League group stage, he scored winning goals against Bayern Munich and Rostov before he went silent for the rest of the competition. The winger has drawn criticism for selfish play and his attitude is sometimes a problem, but he’s a huge part of Simeone’s plans. I think he makes the leap next season.
Strange season for Koke. He was expected to make his long-mooted move to central midfield this season, but he struggled to make the position his own and Atlético shipped loads of goals with him there. So, Simeone moved him back out to a wide position and he really hit form in spring, when he netted in key wins over Sevilla and Málaga and showed an improved set piece delivery. He finished the season with 4 goals and a team-high 8 assists in league play. Koke is capable of doing many things - his work rate is phenomenal, he can pass, he can defend, he can start a counterattack. But he lacks the charisma and personality to really stand out and take control in midfield despite having played over 300 games there. Atleti just handed him a massive extension to 2024 though, and next year is a World Cup year. Here’s hoping the 25-year-old repays that faith with a steadier 2017-18.
Saúl Ñíguez: 7.3
Saúlito struggled quite a bit in the early part of the season, but found his footing after Christmas. Indeed, he scored 6 of his 8 goals after the calendar turned to 2017. The canterano scored winning goals against Eibar (twice) and produced controlling displays against Las Palmas (goal + assist) and Real Betis (assist) as Atlético ended up comfortably in third place. In the Champions League, he scored a world-class goal to send Atleti on its way at Bayer Leverkusen, hit a vein-popping header at Leicester City clinched a semifinal place and started the mattress makers’ comeback effort against Real Madrid. Saúl is, at 22, on his way to becoming a world-class, do-it-all pivot. He’s so good, he even gets to show Tom Cruise around the Wanda Metropolitano.
Time to be real for just a second: Gabi will slow down soon. He just played over ~4,000 minutes AGAIN and he turns 34 in July. But this isn’t about the future, and in 2016-17, the captain was brilliant. Koke and Saúl got the headlines at different times this season, but Gabi motored through a more consistent overall campaign. As I wrote about here, he’s become a more nuanced and tactically disciplined midfielder as he’s aged, and he’s continued to stay remarkably durable, too. For my money, Atlético’s best midfielder this season.
Who was Atlético’s best midfielder in 2016-17?
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