After taking a look at Atlético Madrid’s defensive unit, we turn our attention to midfield.
Diego Simeone’s engine room has underperformed in recent seasons. In theory, he has three excellent starters, but they often don’t offer enough in attack after taking care of their defensive duties.
Simeone continues to opt for a 4-4-2 that morphs into a 4-3-3 in attack. Three of the midfielders in that flat midfield four are Koke, Saúl Ñíguez, and Thomas Partey. Héctor Herrera is another option, although he hasn’t made an impact in Madrid and could leave this summer. Simeone has turned Marcos Llorente, previously a holding midfielder, into a second striker. That leaves Atlético threadbare in the middle of the field and in need of replacements.
Simeone’s main objective is to get Saúl back to his best. At 25, he should be running this midfield, and instead he seems to be moving backwards. He had his most productive season last year with six goals, but that doesn’t tell the bigger story.
Saúl’s best position might be on the right of midfield, where he can become the buccaneering attacking midfielder in a 4-3-3 before tucking back in to become a more solid option on the wing in a 4-4-2. Last season, he was moved around too often to ever really find his groove. He was played at left-back, centre-back and everywhere in the middle without ever finding a home in a strange season for Atlético. With more options, Simeone will have a clearer vision of his own tactics and that will free Saúl to return to the form he showed earlier in his 20s.
Gone are the days of double-digit Koke assists in a season. He went from 2012/13 to 2015/16 with no less than 10 assists in each of those seasons. Last season, he had just five and the trend has been negative over the last three years. That speaks to a wider creativity and finishing issue in Atlético’s tactics, but the signing of Luis Suárez might change that. Koke is another player who will be freed to attack on the left of midfield with a more solid base.
Arsenal want Thomas Partey, but the Premier League club have balked at his €50 million release clause. The Ghanaian has evolved into a starter under Simeone and while not classified as a defensive midfielder, he is often left on his own at the base of midfield. His ambitious passing is a boon for Atlético, but they have missed the control Rodri imposes on a game.
Three academy players — Óscar Clemente, Toni Moya and Rodrigo Riquelme — played a total of 21 minutes combined last season in LaLiga. It’s hard to see any of them breaking into Atlético’s plans this season (indeed, Clemente signed for Las Palmas earlier this summer). After that, it was up to Yannick Carrasco, Thomas Lemar or Vitolo to play as the wide midfielder in a 4-4-2.
That’s why Simeone needs signings and a striker, so he can balance the team.
Atlético are interested in Espanyol’s Marc Roca. Goal’s Ruben Uria has reported that no bid, either formal or informal, has been made. The Spanish midfielder is 23 and could play in the Champions League. Instead, he remains in Espanyol’s squad as they fight for promotion after relegation from the Primera last season. There are still two weeks in the transfer market and it would be a surprise if Espanyol can hold on to the player until then.
Whether Atlético can muster up the funds for a transfer remains to be seen, but Roca would be an incredible signing to either replace Partey long-term or play alongside him in Simeone’s preferred 4-4-2.
Another player of interest is Arsenal’s Lucas Torreira. The Uruguayan is not in Mikel Arteta’s plans and could be loaned before the end of the transfer window. Simeone wants the player and he might be a perfect foil for Partey at the base of midfield, freeing both the Ghanaian to be more ambitious going forward — and Saúl as well.
Real Madrid and Barcelona are offloading players by the busload this summer. It leaves their squads in an unbalanced state. Atlético, so far, have held on to the players they need to hold on to and reinforcements could be on their way. This year in LaLiga, it might be more about being less-bad than the rest as opposed to being brilliant in order to win. Atlético are a midfielder, a left-back and a striker away from being a genuine threat to the big two. One or two midfielders could arrive before the end of the transfer market. Roca would be the preferred option for fans, but Torreria would add a defensive element not seen since Gabi’s departure.