Atlético Madrid’s 2020/21 season is sure to be unusual given the unprecedented circumstances, and it kicks off Sept. 27 against Granada. This series will explore three make-or-break questions Diego Simeone and co. will have to answer in order to compete for silverware amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Question: Do Atlético have enough options in the center of the park?
Answer: Well...it depends.
On Aug. 13, Atlético lost to RB Leipzig in the Champions League quarterfinals. The injured Thomas Partey did not play. Atleti began the match in decent-enough shape, but Simeone’s midfield lost any semblance of control over the game as it moved toward its (of course) agonizing conclusion. João Félix’s brilliant cameo masked Simeone’s inability to deal with Thomas’ absence — the coach selected Héctor Herrera to replace the Ghanaian, but the Mexico international lasted less than an hour while converted forward Marcos Llorente was wasted up top playing next to overpaid lamppost Diego Costa.
Simeone does not have another midfielder like Thomas. Blame it on the club’s transfer policy or blame it on a lack of development between the academy and the first team — either way you slice it, that’s the truth. And when Thomas is injured or suspended (he picked up 13 yellow cards in 35 league games last season), there is no midfielder to lead reliably the transition from defense to attack. The 27-year-old led his team in interceptions and middle-third touches in 2019/20, and his 47 completed dribbles also ranked first. He is the team’s most progressive passer by some distance, too, as defined by a player’s movement toward goal with ball at feet.
All this to say even in a summer unlike any other, with checkbooks closed and pursestrings tightened, Atlético haven’t found anyone to back up the incumbent #5. Sure, Arsenal balked at paying Thomas’ release clause, and there aren’t many affordable players who possess his diverse skill set. Yet, if we exclude Koke (who will play in central midfield roughly twice a year), that leaves us with Herrera and Saúl to occupy Thomas’ place. Both players replicate some of Thomas’ duties, but Herrera isn’t defensively forceful or consistent enough. Saúl takes a similar number of touches in dangerous positions, but he isn’t the risk-taker or line-breaking passer in the mold of his fellow academy graduate.
The answer to this question hinges in part on how Simeone envisions Llorente fitting into the team this season. The ex-Real Madrid pivot struggled as Rodri’s replacement, but he turned around his campaign in February when Cholo played him first on the right-hand side of midfield, then at forward. The coach may see Llorente as his new Raúl García — a spirited, versatile worker bee with understated creativity. Indeed, Llorente recorded 0.46 goal-creating actions per 90 minutes in the long 2019/20 season — only January arrival Yannick Carrasco bettered that mark for third-place Atlético. It makes little sense to push someone with his athleticism back into more-defensive duties.
Based on his first season in red and white, Herrera isn’t the answer despite his box-to-box track record — he is a reliable passer, but just doesn’t drive the play. Saúl lacks the “devil may care”-ness of Thomas’ approach. Koke’s value, though immense, lies elsewhere on the pitch, and Simeone has long shown discomfort with moving the captain away from the flanks. Atleti’s attempt to land Espanyol’s Marc Roca failed, as the club did not agree a fee or player exchange with the Segunda side.
(Think about that sentence for a moment. Continue.)
Thomas may not be Los Rojiblancos’ most purely talented midfielder — I think that’s Saúl — but he does almost everything well and takes initiative as the team’s most forward-thinking midfield distributor. I mean, just look at this gap between Thomas, Saúl, Renan Lodi, Vitolo and Ángel Correa in terms of pushing the ball forward, measured in yards:
That is stark, mis amigos.
Unless we see a serious change in how the two other battle-tested academy products play (we won’t), unless Herrera rediscovers his FC Porto form (50/50), or unless there’s a surprise transfer now or in January, Atlético do not have a replacement — or at least a deputy — for Thomas, who himself replaced Tiago Mendes three years ago. Virtually every XI Simeone selects has to have Thomas in it — which is great, until it’s time to rotate the squad. Suspensions — or worse, an injury — for Thomas will leave the mattress makers’ midfield in a precarious position this season. The club has not responded to Leipzig’s warning shot via the transfer market, and Cholo will be hard-pressed to find a solution and put this issue to bed.