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The understated importance of Koke

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Koke is back from an injury, Atlético look more balanced and they might be on the brink of something big.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Sometimes there’s a man... I won’t say a hero, ‘cause, what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles.

The Stranger from “The Big Lebowski”

Diego Simeone went back to his origins in the first leg of Atlético Madrid’s Champions League last 16 tie against Juventus. He reverted to a midfield four that consisted of players who, if they were asked, would tell you their best position is the centre of midfield. There had been brief flirtations with wingers on the wings but as the game drew closer, it became apparent that Simeone would revert to type.

“These guys know how to compete and they fight like brothers,” Simeone said after the game in what was a vintage display from a team who many thought he had brought as far as he ever possibly could.

After two failed Champions League finals, Atlético’s image as the bad boys of Spanish football started to wane. Their inclination to dwell close to the grayer areas between legal and illegal had grown tiresome and they were out of ideas. But against Juventus, that verve returned. As Simeone clasped his “huevos” after the first goal and as the Wanda Metropolitano bounced, there was a sense that this could be another against-the-odds Champions League crusade.

Amongst that band of brothers is a man who knits it all together.

He’s not particularly tall or fast. He’s not innately creative or good at scoring goals. But his importance to Atlético cannot be overstated. It’s difficult to pinpoint what it is he does so excellently but he has the most key passes behind Antoine Griezmann and the most successful short passes too. He has the second most passes behind Rodri and sits somewhere between a creative midfielder and a deep lying playmaker. He’s the tick and the tock of Simeone’s midfield and you’re as likely to see him scurrying out to the wing to close down space as you are to find him in the middle spraying passes to runners. If pressed for an answer as to what he does best, you wouldn’t be wrong in saying “a little bit of everything.”

He makes those around him better, too. Saúl Ñíguez had hit a slump in recent weeks. It wasn’t so much a slump in that he did things poorly, but he was floating through games like a ghost. It’s no coincidence that since Koke’s return, he played potentially his best game of the season against Villarreal and scored a goal which saw him surge forward into the penalty area like fans haven’t seen for weeks. Without Koke, he had lost his reference in the team and lost his way. Like a boat with no lighthouse to bring them to shore, Atlético found themselves lost at sea so often without the 27-year-old.

Simeone likes to say that Diego Costa transmits fear in opponents. Even when he’s not really involved in a game or having a direct effect on play, he has defenders looking over their shoulder and referees hoping he isn’t in a prickly mode, which is almost never. For Koke, it’s not fear that he transmits to the opponents but something more calming that he gives to his own teammates and the game. It’s honesty, work rate, cohesion. He’s Simeone’s eyes and ears on the field and he intuitively knows what and given game needs.

On the field, he is the man who makes Simeone’s tactics a reality, and off it he has become the voice of reason, an ambassador and a spokesperson for the dressing room. When Álvaro Morata was touted as a potential signing and those behind the scenes knew it was a possibility, Koke was wheeled out to give his stamp of approval.

“If he comes to Atlético, he would be welcome,” he said to ease nerves about the player’s adaptation.

He’s became the youngest player to play 350 games for the club — just another feather in his cap — and has become a bastion of what Simeone wants his team to be

Cholo says he needed to show balls to play Costa and Koke despite them missing six weeks before the Juventus game. But he also knew that if he was to escape that Juventus tie with anything to hold onto going into the second leg, he would need them on the field to transmit fear and execute the hard work and commitment that sets the tone for the rest of the players.

Koke has never reached the heights expected of him when he first arrived on the scene as though those expectations were created for a different player entirely that what he has turned into and possibly always was. He never became Andrés Iniesta and he hasn’t cemented fully a place in the Spain team, but he did become exactly what his coach needed at the right time.

Because sometimes there’s a man...