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Atlético’s season of eight centre-backs

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By playing at the back against Celta Vigo, Toni Moya became Atlético Madrid’s eighth centre-back of the 2018/19 season. 

Paris Saint Germain v Club Atletico de Madrid - International Champions Cup 2018 Photo by Paul Miller/Getty Images for ICC

You know the Steps song about the bootscootin’ baby and the Rodeo Romeo? Did you know that when they sing “five, six, seven, eight” they were really counting the centre-backs of Atlético Madrid’s 2018/19 season?

That’s right. As of last Saturday afternoon, los rojiblancos have had to use eight different centre-backs in the current campaign.

Toni Moya, a midfielder for the B team, was the latest to have to protect freshly-renewed Jan Oblak’s goal, as a result of the plague of injuries Atlético have suffered this season. Before him came Diego Godín, José María Giménez, Lucas Hernández, Stefan Savić, Saúl Ñíguez, Thomas Partey and Francisco Montero, Moya’s partner for the Celta Vigo match.

There are many crazy aspects to Atlético’s season and this may be the craziest of them all. For all four of the first team’s centre-backs to have been out at the same time multiple times is not normal. That doesn’t happen. But, of course, it has happened to Atleti in this season of eight centre-backs, this season of “Parte Médico.”

Perhaps more amazing is that these centre-backs have all performed well, even against the largest odds. As well as the fact they are just 21 and 20 years of age respectively, Moya and Montero had never played a competitive first-team match together before last Saturday. They did form the central defensive partnership for pre-season matches against Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain — but to go up against a striker of Maxi Gómez’ calibre in a real LaLiga match with three points on the line is something different entirely and they did well. Even if Oblak had to make three great saves, the youngsters did their part and contributed to the victory.

There was a similarly rookie-ish centre-back pairing in November when Saúl and Thomas had to drop back into central defence during the 3-2 home win over Athletic Club. With all substitutions used up and Godín injured, the Uruguayan went up front, where he scored the winner, and the Spaniard and Ghanaian were left to improvise in the back line. Like Moya and Montero, they did themselves and the Atlético coaching staff proud.

While Atleti won’t win the league title this year, the fact that they are on course to post the best defensive record in terms of goals conceded is truly remarkable considering the injury issues they’ve had all year long.

Not only have they had to use rookie centre-backs, but they’ve had to alternate the central defensive pairing so many times that there’s been no consistency and little chance for the centre-backs to develop any familiarity with their colleagues. It helps that the most common pairing has been Godín and Giménez, the Uruguayans who’ve played over 150 times together for club and country. Yet, only 15 matches this season saw them together at centre-back.

For the rest, we’ve seen Godín-Savić, Godín-Lucas, Godín-Montero, Giménez-Savić, Giménez-Lucas, Savić-Lucas, Saúl-Thomas and Moya-Montero. That’s nine different pairings this season — and remarkably, Atleti have conceded just 0.66 goals per game.