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Héctor Herrera’s way back

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The Mexico captain should get chances to succeed if Atlético do not bring in a Thomas Partey replacement.

Atletico de Madrid v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid have a hole in midfield.

Though Diego Simeone welcomed Arsenal’s Lucas Torreira into the fold last week, he did so after Thomas Partey headed in the opposite direction. Torreira is a slight, aggressive ball-winner at the base of midfield, someone closer in profile to former colchonero Augusto Fernández than to Thomas — a complete pivot who melded strength and technical ability to help lead the transition into attacking third.

LaLiga has allowed Atlético until Nov. 5 to replace Thomas, and Los Colchoneros have made Valencia’s Geoffrey Kondogbia the top choice. Reportedly, the left-footed Central African Republic international has agreed terms with Atlético, but he will not push for the move. Owner Peter Lim has not given the thumbs-up to a sale, and the club has referred Atleti to Kondogbia’s €30 million release clause given it cannot replace him if he leaves now.

Though Simeone is impatient (and justifiably so), Atlético would be smart to wait until the transfer window reopens. Los Che will be more amenable to selling a 27-year-old with 18 months left on his contract — and Kondogbia will be Champions League-eligible if he signs in January, too. A loan-with-obligation-to-buy formula could be agreed upon at that time, and it would benefit all parties.

In addition, waiting a tad longer gives Héctor Herrera a final shot to prove his worth. It’s why he refused a return to FC Porto on loan, and it’s time for him to take action.

Atletico Madrid v Granada - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Herrera’s debut season began with a bang. Though he didn’t feature in Atlético’s first four league fixtures, he scored against Juventus in the opening Champions League group game to snatch a draw at the Wanda Metropolitano. The 30-year-old was decent if not unspectacular for the rest of 2019, but a groin injury early in 2020 knocked him out of contention until June — long after Marcos Llorente exploded onto the scene. Simeone started Herrera on four occasions following the COVID hiatus, and the player’s season ended with a disastrous showing against RB Leipzig in the Champions League.

Still, even though he received 1,123 minutes across 21 league appearances (12 starts), Herrera was a useful player in 2019/20. He can partially recreate what Thomas brought much of the past three years.

(Note: the statistics cited below are measured in per 90 minutes and are culled from fbref.com)

Herrera led all rojiblancos in passes attempted (62) and completed (54), good for an 86 percent clip. His passes’ progressive distance stood at 333 yards per 90 minutes, a rate 10 percent higher than Thomas. To that end, only Thomas (6.33) had more success completing passes into the final third than Herrera (6.24), and both were far ahead of their teammates in this regard. In addition, the longtime Mexico international was a reliable long-range distributor, completing those attempts at a 74 percent clip.

Here is the most impressive statistic, though. Herrera vastly exceeded Thomas’ output in shot-creating actions, all things relatively equal. The present Arsenal midfielder generated 1.73 SCA in 2019/20. Herrera, meanwhile? He hummed along with nearly three SCA. Let’s say a reasonably-healthy Luis Suárez turns a few of those created shots into goals. That would make the Mexican look a bit better, right?

Herrera held his own defensively, as well. Though he did not recover loose balls or win aerial duels at a rate close to Thomas’s pace, Herrera was the team’s top tackler, winning better than two per 90. Also, he bettered Thomas in combined tackles and interceptions, his 3.44 total placing him behind Renan Lodi and Saúl Ñíguez on the team leaderboard. Herrera and Thomas recorded eerily-similar marks in effectively tackling dribblers, while the former’s more advanced positioning allowed him to be more proficient at pressuring an opposing player who received the ball in Atleti’s attacking third. Furthermore, Herrera is known as a clean player and picked up just one yellow card in LaLiga last season — Thomas was suspended twice for yellow card accumulation.

However, the biggest issue Herrera will face is playing time. Torreira figures to become a Simeone favorite, and Llorente’s presence on the right flank takes away another another spot in the four-man midfield. For the time being, Herrera will battle with Koke and Saúl — a competition in which he is the clear underdog and will not start often. So far, he’s received just 16 minutes in 2020/21.

Herrera must make the most of the 20 minutes he’ll receive here, the 55 minutes he’ll receive there. Otherwise, his impressive underlying metrics won’t matter, and a cash-strapped Atlético may not be able to land Kondogbia (Simeone’s preferred option) anyway. Atleti cannot compete on all fronts with a Thomas-sized hole in the center of the park, so Herrera’s time has to be now — and he has the ability to take advantage.