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Simeone’s Atlético rebuild progresses as team seeks fresh start

El Cholo is overseeing the most dramatic reshaping since he took over Atlético’s bench.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Sevilla FC - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Diego Simeone is building something new.

“More team, less stars,” is how Diario AS put it recently after Atlético Madrid shattered their wage structure to re-sign Antoine Griezmann last summer. That move soured the dressing room and changed the very nature of how Simeone operates. You could be a reincarnated version of Johan Cruyff walking into the dressing room, but he insists you start on an equal footing. You work, you compromise and you suffer, just like everyone else.

But when your top earner eclipses his peers in wages, spotlight and everything in between, it’s hard to keep up that illusion. And so, the whole thing is being torn down once again in the hope of building it back up again — just how Simeone likes it. “Simeone knows any act of construction is an act of deconstruction,” is how El Mundo has termed it.

Chief executive Miguel Ángel Gil Marín has confirmed that up to six players could join the club this summer. Atlético will lose plenty of experience at the back, flash up front and control in the middle — but with every loss comes an opportunity to get back to their roots and reinstall a more Simeone-style player in their place.

Hermoso for Godín

Mario Hermoso is in Madrid. The Espanyol defender posted to his Instagram that he was travelling to the capital on Monday, which won’t do much to quell speculation that he is ready to sign with the Colchoneros. Real Madrid sold him after he developed in their academy and included a buy-back clause in his deal.

Julen Lopetegui was reportedly keen last season to introduce a three-at-the-back system, but he was told Hermoso wouldn’t arrive. This summer, with Éder Militão moving from Porto, Madrid don’t need Hermoso and so won’t stand in the way of an Atlético deal (even though they might like to do so). He turns 24 on June 18 and he is left-footed, which makes him a much more natural fit alongside José Giménez at the back. If Atlético do manage to sign him, that duo would automatically become one of the most exciting centre-back pairings in the league provided Giménez can stay fit.

It would be blasphemous to suggest Hermoso is as good as peak Diego Godín, but the Uruguayan wasn’t at his peak last season. Last season’s version of Godín needed an upgrade and Hermoso could be the man to fill that role — and he also replaces Lucas Hernández with his ability to play on the left. He had more clearances per 90 and played more minutes than Godín last season as the veteran became increasingly injury-prone — he missed 10 games with various muscular injuries. He was lucky to have injured his hamstring just as the winter break arrived too, or that number might have been higher.

2018-19 season - red lines are averages for respective stats.

Hermoso was also dribbled past less but did have fewer tackles per 90, which could mean a couple things including better positioning, better teammates, less need to defend potentially or teams avoiding him.

2018-19 season - red lines are averages for respective stats.

Replacing Rodrigo

It’s always going to be tough to replace a generational talent like Rodri, especially after just one year. The hope that came with such a promising first season has been shattered with news that Pep Guardiola wants him in Manchester. That makes sense but the low release clause of around €70 million and the hypothetical search for the academy replacement is not exciting.

Luckily, Zinedine Zidane is in the process of binning a handful of young, talented Spanish players as Real Madrid overhaul their own team this summer — and Marcos Llorente, whose father and grandfather wore rojiblanco, is available and said to be keen on a switch.

Despite the fact that Llorente’s sample size is very small, he did compete with Rodri in terms of controlling the tempo in the middle when he stepped in for Casemiro last season. Llorente did get injured with a seemingly recurring abductor issue but a genuine position battle was brewing before the 24-year-old went down in January. As a result, he missed his chance to supplant Casemiro for good and missed the boat on a long-term stay under Zidane.

2018-19 season - red lines are averages for respective stats.

Atlético don’t need Llorente to be Rodri. They need him to be a little bit more like Gabi because Atlético have Koke, Saul and Thomas Partey to pick up the slack when it comes to controlling midfield — provided they are played in the right position and allowed to flourish in their natural roles. Mexican midfielder Hector Herrera’s arrival is supposedly a done deal too, and with those two signings, Simeone’s midfield becomes versatile, physical, creative, deep and energetic all in equal measure. That suits Simeone more rather than having a number of specialised midfielders, given the Argentine’s penchant for playing four midfielders in a line across the park.

Meanwhile, Rodri and Godín’s €60k and €90k a week wages according to capology will be wiped off the books for two players who are currently making €10k a week per the same site. Even if Atleti were to triple both players’ wages, the total bill goes down significantly.

And that’s before we even get to the attack. João Félix is reportedly close to joining. Thomas Lemar is adamant that he wants to stay and improve on last season. The latter started to improve near the end of the season — and maybe without Griezmann, more of the creative burden will fall on his shoulders. How he reacts remains to be seen.

Atlético were intent on making the Champions League final last season and there was a sense that with the Griezmann signing, things were starting to turn in their favour. They had their superstar and Simeone’s underlying system.

But that didn’t work, and so superstars will be sold and a new approach will be taken. They still might fall short, but Simeone is going back to what he knows best and that has bore fruit for the rojiblancos in the past.