Kieran Trippier is off to a flying start at Atlético Madrid after two games. He has nailed down the right-back position and has begun to win over fans with his play — he assisted one of Atlético’s goals and was involved in the other this season. His cross for Álvaro Morata against Getafe in his debut was the Bury-born defender at his best — if you took a ball and asked Morata exactly where he wanted it, the delivery would have been within millimetres of where Trippier put it.
The England international’s delivery was never really a doubt though after he left Tottenham Hotspur. What nagged him were queries about defensive vulnerabilities, the seemingly-lasting reputation he left in London.
So what has Diego Simeone asked of Trippier so far? Bssically, a lot of things that make him good and few things that make him susceptible. I got to chatting with a Liverpool friend after reading this article by Michael Cox on Trent Alexander-Arnold. Its main point is relevant in this situation — how Jürgen Klopp figured out a way to make TAA the superb player he is by hiding his weakness (if he has any defensively) and exploiting his virtues.
Last week against Leganés, Trippier played as a wing-back, with Stefan Savić behind him as the right-sided central defender and an option when nothing was available up ahead. Koke, as always, offered support inside. The Spanish midfielder is every full-back’s best friend and you suspect if Simeone could clone him, he’d have his captain on either side of midfield to protect his left and right-back.
But it’s Trippier who benefitted last weekend from Koke’s tireless running and selflessness.
Trippier had the second-most touches after Savić in the game and saw plenty of action down that right-hand side. In a first half short of chances, he came up with one of the most innovative passes when he dropped the ball onto a dime between a defender and the keeper for Morata. Spanish television showed maybe 10 replays and referred to it as “talento puro” from the 28-year-old.
Trippier tucked in when the ball was on the other flank to start, but continually looked to get Jonathan Silva on his own out on the right — his teammates were looking for him with that cross-field pass, too.
Another facet of the game helping Trippier is his one-touch passing from those long raking passes. This limits the chance of his being dispossessed, which then decreases the chance of a counterattack. Some of Atlético’s most dangerous plays have come when Trippier has dinked the ball first time to Morata or a midfielder arriving late into the box. It doesn’t always work, but it has almost always resulted in a corner or throw-in.
Trippier had Thomas covering from him over the top when he pressed Silva and went one-on-one with his opposing wing-back — which was fine for Leganés, but this role might belong to Marcos Llorente or Héctor Herrera on bigger Champions League nights. And the beauty of what Simeone did was make sure Trippier was never left chasing Silva, who is one of the rising stars in Spain, a left-back with a lethal left foot. He was reduced to hopeful crosses and scraps against Atlético while he watched Trippier maybe not wreak havoc, but wreak concern from his position.
Three of the very best chances came from Trippier’s wing in the second half — Koke’s cross to João Félix, Morata’s cross for Koke and eventually, Felix’s pass to Vitolo for the goal.
When the game opened up and Trippier was forced to be more cognisant of his defensive duties, Félix occupied the spaces on the right where Trippier had been. That’s where the goal came from, too.
The ball out from Jan Oblak left Trippier with the chance to stand on it and have a look around. The sensible option might have been to play it back, but Silva pushed up and Trippier saw the chance to get Félix one-on-one. And that was your ballgame, folks.
Trippier was shunted out of the England team and out of Spurs due to defensive lapses. But he might have picked the one coach who is capable of both protecting him from this flaw and helping him become an elite old school full-back again. We saw under Simeone how Juanfran got a call up to Spain, played in two Champions League finals and wound up with a decorated career as one of the best right-backs of his generation.
As the games get more serious around Champions League time, expect Simeone to be ever more careful with his team selection and the protection of his back four. This can be seen as an opportunity especially for Trippier, because while the midfielders are busy minding the house, the team will need a creative, energetic outlet. Against Leganés, he proved he is willing and capable to be that very player.