At first glance, Diego Simeone’s switch to a 3-5-2 is a radical move. When you break it down into its constituent parts, however, it makes perfect sense — an almost natural transformation after losing the crown jewel in their midfield.
Atlético Madrid reluctantly sold Thomas Partey on the final day of the summer transfer window. The Ghanaian was their most adventurous passer and physically-imposing midfielder. Half-human, half-octopus, Partey’s legs were used as ball-winning weapons when they weren’t spraying the ball far and wide.
Atlético knew they couldn’t find a Partey clone, so they replaced the things he was good at and reduced the need to do the things they couldn’t replace.
“Okay. People who run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs,” Peter Brand says in “Moneyball.” That’s baseball talk, but the logic is the same.
Partey led the team with 179 final third passes last season, had the most switches on the team — that inch-perfect pass onto Kieran Trippier’s big toe — and the most progressive passing yards (after Jan Oblak). He was second with 138 successful pressures, led the team in interceptions and was fourth in tackles won.
In other words, Thomas was key to Atlético’s build-up and was a defensive anchor.
Partey was a ball-winning, risk-taking passer, as you can see from the graphic below. The midfielder’s numbers are from just over two games with Atlético this season, but the figures are instructive as to what he did for the team. (“Ball losses” is a proxy for moving the ball forward into dangerous areas of the field — Kees van Hemmen has written very well about this idea.)
Koke could replace the passing if necessary but he already had a fairly hectic workload as it was, and by putting the club captain in Partey’s place as a like-for-like replacement, you lose athleticism as anyone who has seen him chasing a player in transition can attest to. You could play Geoffrey Kondogbia or Lucas Torreira there, but then you’re losing the high-risk, high-reward passing that enticed Arsenal to pay Partey’s release clause at a time of huge economic uncertainty.
(Side note: Kondogbia has played recently, and as you can see from above, he is winning the ball back almost as often as Partey. It’s hard to tell if this is in response to injuries and absences or whether Simeone is foreshadowing how he wants to play against Chelsea. This would also reinforce the point that as Atlético play more defensively, the need for a ball-winner in midfield becomes more important.)
Simeone saw an easy solution to his passing problem. It would also require a retooling of his tactical set-up, his entire belief system. The change would mean reducing the need for Atlético to win the ball back as often as they had with Partey in the team. This prompted a switch to possession-based football.
With Mario Hermoso’s entry and the switch to the back three, Cholo found an extra body in defence and the ability to spray the ball across the field and through the heart of opposing defences.
Left-footed centre-backs are this season’s must-have accessory. Ronald Koeman changed his whole team when Ronald Araujo got injured, saying “I like to have a right-footer and a left-footer as a pair at the back.”
Pep Guardiola has known for a while about how important a left-footed builder-upper is. “There are many actions to build up — to make our play quicker, better — but we can’t do them. Not because the other players are not good but because (Aymeric) Laporte is the only left-footed central defender,” Guardiola said after a game against Sheffield United at the start of the year (as Tom Worville pointed out).
Pau Torres, Villarreal’s young central defender, has garnered attention too in recent months — no less because he is left-footed and shares similar qualities with Hermoso. Torres is asked to do a lot of what Hermoso does with line-breaking passes and risky switches.
Atlético are attempting 144 left-footed passes per 90 this season and only tried 107 per 90 last season. Hermoso is the key feature to this ever-expanding attack.
The switch to three at the back also liberated Trippier and Yannick Carrasco on the wings. Simeone has never been able to replace Lucas Hernández as his all-action left-back, but Carrasco and Hermoso together provide much of what the Bayern Munich defender brought to Atlético. It has also opened the door for an attack-minded midfielder (Thomas Lemar) to grow in importance.
The two passes below are succinctly Hermoso, and indicative of Atlético’s new system. They are well inside Granada’s half of the field. When Atlético play with a high-line and try to dominate possession, Hermoso is essentially a deep-lying midfielder with the attacking third at his disposal. A right-footed player can’t even attempt this pass, and opponents know it. With Hermoso in the team and in these positions, anything is possible.
The passes are dangerous, but it’s the receiving player’s angled run that hurts the opponents’ defensive shape. The run pulls a defender out of the middle, and it’s in these spaces where opponents become unbalanced and Luis Suárez thrives.
Having Hermoso in this area keeps the field wide because Atlético’s opponents’ have to honour the switch to the far side of the field. It means they can’t collapse into a tighter shape. And Hermoso’s ability on the ball means drawing a man out to press him, or else he will hurt you.
Last season, Simeone rotated between Felipe, Stefan Savić and José Giménez in his back two. Lemar had yet to regain his form and Hermoso was out of the team, only playing sporadically. This season, Cholo has opened up the entire field with through introducing more left-footed players — Lemar, another leftie, plays significant minutes with growing influence.
Losing Partey was hard, but Hermoso gives Atlético half of what he did well. A change of system and a more possession-based style means there isn’t as much need to win the ball back as frequently. Atlético are less combative, more elegant.
They can still return to their stubborn 4-4-2 and might do so against Chelsea next week, but Atlético have evolved and it makes them more unpredictable than we have ever seen under Diego Simeone.