The 2020/21 campaign saw a Diego Simeone-organized defense finish with LaLiga’s lowest goals-conceded mark for the seventh time in nine years.
Atlético Madrid’s back line differed noticeably in personnel and playing style from the rugged 2013/14 vintage. But it allowed just two goals over the first 10 league games and 25 overall. In the Simeone Era, only the 2015/16 and 2017/18 sides let in fewer goals in LaLiga than this one.
We conclude the Seasonal Player Ratings by pulling back the curtain on the champions’ defense.
Manu Sánchez/Ricard Sánchez The former played 49 minutes and assisted a Luis Suárez goal in a 2-0 win at Celta Vigo in October, but he did not make another appearance for the first team before moving on loan to Osasuna in January. Ricard scored on his debut in the Copa del Rey against Cardassar, but was sent off in the next cup game against Cornellá — N/A.
Ivo Grbić/Miguel San Román One appearance each for the goalkeepers. Grbić kept a clean sheet in the 3-0 Copa win over Cardassar, while San Román conceded the game’s sole goal at Cornellà.
Grbić will likely head out on loan to get minutes in 2021/22, while Atlético will search for a more-experienced Oblak backup — N/A.
Šime Vrsaljko Though he scored on his return to first-team action in December, most of Vrsaljko’s minutes came in January and February during Trippier’s exorbitant suspension.
The Croatian didn’t offer much in attack over his six league starts, but he did a job defensively. Once chided for his defensive-third struggles, Vrsaljko averaged better than three tackles and three clearances per 90 minutes. He held his own after being eased back into action following another knee surgery, and clubs that see a starting-caliber right back here might give Atlético a call when EURO 2020 ends — 5.
Renan Lodi The Brazilian’s second season in Madrid did not go as smoothly as his first. Lodi made only 11 starts in LaLiga and struggled to adapt to the new 3-5-2 system. He looked steadier during those periods when Atlético reverted to the four-man defense, improving his shot-creation output (from 1.16 shot-creating actions per 90 last season to 2.23 this time) and showing some modest defensive growth. The 23-year-old enjoyed his best moment with the club when he belted an 83rd-minute equalizer past Sergio Herrera in the eventual 2-1 win over Osasuna on May 16.
Lodi is in the middle of a six-year contract, and Atlético would be loath to lose a young player with his attacking quality. However. he will need to reach another level to win back his place in 2021/22, given Hermoso and Yannick Carrasco enjoyed outstanding campaigns — 5.5.
Felipe Also struggled to replicate his debut-season form, but came up big when it mattered most.
Felipe continues to be a clearance machine — he racked up nearly seven per 90 minutes — and he’s also the team’s best aerial presence. He’s a reliable passer, though not a very progressive one, and that made him a somewhat-awkward fit in a three-man backline where the other three central defenders play longer, more accurate forward passes. The 32-year-old was more error-prone in 2020/21 as well, which saw him slide down the pecking order.
But Felipe put in a sensational matchday 38 shift at Estadio José Zorrilla as Atlético clinched LaLiga, and despite his flaws, he ranks as an ideal third-or fourth-choice center back. That will be his role in 2021/22, after which he will be a free agent — 6.
José Giménez Yet another season in which injuries kept Giménez on the treatment table for half the year — and after a COVID-19 bout left him worse for wear.
Atlético won 15 games and lost just once in LaLiga when he started, and Giménez really took to the formation change as he put together his best season as a distributor (more carries, progressive passes, and progressive distance traveled than at any point in his career).
I really hope we’ll see Giménez make more than 20 league starts again someday, because Atlético were dominant when he played last year and he’s still only 26. But with two years left on his contract, the 2021/22 campaign might be “put up or shut up” time for the Uruguayan — 6.75.
Mario Hermoso One of the season’s big surprises. And he was so close to joining Real Sociedad on loan before it began.
Hermoso was instrumental in the Spanish champions’ attacking evolution, as his medium-and long-range passing broke lines and advanced the ball into more-dangerous positions. Simeone’s Atlético hasn’t had a left-footed center back who can swiftly carry the ball forward and progress the play into midfield — even into the attacking third. Hermoso averaged nearly 77 touches per 90 minutes and completed 85 percent of his passes — no Atleti defender took more touches, and no center back carried the ball five yards toward goal more frequently, either.
Simeone miscast Hermoso during the 2019/20 transition year and played him in a 4-4-2 that was not tailored to his strengths. As a result, Hermoso became arguably the biggest beneficiary from Atlético’s tactical overhaul in 2020/21. The ex-Real Madrid defender enjoyed a sterling season, developing into an elite ball-playing center back who should be playing for Spain at EURO 2020 — 7.25.
Kieran Trippier Brilliant campaign, made all the more brilliant after the brutally-unfair 10-week suspension the English FA levied upon him in December.
Trippier is the first English player to win LaLiga without playing for Madrid or Barcelona. He did it after producing a season that rivaled the legendary Juanfran’s best years at the club. Trippier completed 90 minutes in all but two of his 28 appearances in the league and went the entire season without picking up a yellow card. He notched six assists — a career-best in top-flight play — and developed remarkable chemistry with top scorers Llorente and Suárez. England coach Gareth Southgate recently called him a “defensive animal”, a testament to the player’s astonishing work rate and determination to prove himself abroad.
A move back to Britain may beckon for Trippier — he turns 31 in September and has now made history on foreign soil — but Atlético will demand any interested parties (hola, Manchester United) pay his €40 million release clause. He was, and is, that important to Simeone — 8.
Stefan Savić The mustachioed Montenegrin delivered his best season yet and made a strong case as LaLiga’s best center back in 2020/21.
Savić relished playing in a new system, which unlocked parts of his game he struggled to summon consistently over his previous five years in Spain — like advanced passing and general positional security. Now squarely in his prime, the 30-year-old cut out many of the silly mistakes from years past (though his 15 yellow cards were far and away a career-high), and he never looked more assured with the ball at his feet than he did this season.
An injury-marred 2019/20 obscured Savić’s positional development, as did the transitioning team around him. But now, said development cannot be ignored. Savić’s excellent long-ball delivery and sturdy head (a career-best 3.1 aerial duels won per 90) contributed to his standout campaign. He doesn’t foul often, and he gets dribbled past once every three games, roughly. He’s very, very good now, even though it took a while to get there — 8.25.
Jan Oblak Before the season began, I asked whether Oblak would “bounce back” in 2020/21 and steal enough games for Atlético to remain competitive when the chips were down. I wrote:
Atlético’s 2015 defense isn’t walking through that door, so Oblak will probably face 100-plus shots on target for the fourth straight season. Saving more than 80 percent of said shots will help Atleti’s 2020/21 edition get closer than 17 points off first place... I think Oblak gets back to that magic 80 percent mark, which could have quite the bearing on a season in which Barcelona and Real Madrid have a few vulnerabilities.
Sure enough, Oblak saved exactly 80 percent of the shots he faced in LaLiga, and the league’s official statkeepers credited him with 103 saves. Also, the rojiblancos got a tad closer than 17 points from Barça and Madrid — they took the title over them.
I love being right.
Suárez and Llorente provided much of the offensive danger, and the midfield restructuring allowed Atlético to control games with more authority. But Oblak completed arguably his best-ever season between the sticks — and after years of saving los colchoneros’ bacon with only two trophies to show for it, LaLiga is his crowning achievement.
Based on the post-shot expected goals metric, Oblak should have conceded around 32 goals. He let in 25 and saved two penalties, conceding 0.66 goals per 90 minutes. Oblak won a record-tying fifth Zamora Trophy and was named LaLiga’s MVP for his exploits. Stupid-good stops late in the season against Levante, Alavés, and Barcelona kept Atleti’s title push on track.
At 28 years old, Oblak is already the greatest goalkeeper in club history and the best in the world. He has been both for some time. Down the stretch, as Atlético won LaLiga for the 11th time, he made sure everybody knew it — 10.
Who was Atlético’s best defensive player in 2020/21?
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