A winter storm has ravaged through Atlético Madrid this Christmas time with the news that Bayern Munich are expected to pay Lucas Hernández’s release clause of €80m. First, the club denied it was true. Then Diego Simeone spoke of how he’d be able to accept the defender’s exit. Later, declarations from chief executive Miguel Ángel Gil Marín suggested that los colchoneros are simply buying time and looking to delay the inevitable to the summer.
If, or when, the France international does leave the club, it will be a massive blow to the Atlético project. As one of the best young centre-backs in the game, one who is versatile enough to have won the World Cup as left-back for Les Bleus, the 22-year-old is a major asset. He is already a “legend” after surpassing the 100 appearances mark for los rojiblancos and he could have gone on to become one of the all-time greats at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano. It’ll hurt to see him thrive in another city.
However, there is no need to panic. Atlético have Diego Godín and José María Giménez, who could both start ahead of Lucas at centre-back anyway. Stefan Savić is there too, while Francisco Montero is improving all the time.
Then, Atleti already have another up-and-coming left-back on their books in Jonny Castro Otto. He was purchased from Celta Vigo for €7m in the summer and immediately loaned out to Wolverhampton in the Premier League, where he has caught the eye so far this season.
His performances under Nuno Espírito Santo have been so compelling that Luis Enrique has given Jonny minutes for the Spanish national team. While the Asturian eventually realised that Jordi Alba is too good to overlook, it was the presence of players like Jonny that initially convinced the new coach to ignore the Barcelona left-back.
Luis Enrique knows Jonny very well having been his coach at Celta Vigo, and it was actually then that the player converted to left-back. His first steps in football were taken at right-back, and he even played centre-back on occasions when emerging through the Celta academy. But Luis Enrique reinvented Jonny with Celta captain Hugo Mallo blocking his path to the first team.
Now he is an incredible left-back, but as a right-footed player he can also play on the right side of defence should Juanfran or Santiago Arias be unavailable — something that has regularly been the case this season. In fact, Jonny is so versatile that he has routinely played as a left-wingback for Wolves, displaying his attacking skills as much as his defensive abilities.
At 24, he is already experienced enough to slot into Simeone’s left-back spot straight away if Lucas leaves and if Filipe Luís follows him out the door as expected. In total, Jonny has made 183 LaLiga appearances and 132 at left-back. He also has international experience with the national team and through his gap year in England, so he will be a just-add-water kind of addition when he returns from loan next summer.
Is he as valuable as Lucas? Probably not quite. But will Atlético cope just fine with Jonny plus €80m to spend on strengthening other areas of the squad, such as a new backup centre-back to Godín and Giménez? Yes, I think they will.