Diego Simeone and the Atlético Madrid technical staff restructured the team’s midfield early in the 2020/21 season. A key transfer in October precipitated a tactical reshuffle, which propelled Atlético toward its best-ever start to a league season. During the springtime, COVID cases and fluctuating form provoked selection questions for Simeone — many times, his best attacking midfielder had to slide over to right back. But Cholo’s captain, known for a firm hand and the cohesion he offers, rallied the troops at the start of May — and Atlético clinched its 11th league crown at Real Valladolid two weeks ago.
Here’s how Simeone’s midfielders graded out in 2020/21.
Juan Sanabria/Mario Soriano Both Atlético B midfielders debuted in the Copa del Rey against Cardassar and Cornellà, respectively. The 21-year-old Sanabria moved to Zaragoza on a loan move in January, while teenager Soriano remained with the B team as it suffered relegation. The latter is an intriguing talent and rose through the ranks despite Atlético B’s awful year — N/A.
Thomas Partey Played 200 minutes across Atlético’s first three league games before securing a transfer to Arsenal. Simeone recovered quickly from the shock of losing a one-time pillar on deadline day — if there ever was any — as Herrera played more and Koke eventually took over Thomas’ role at the base of midfield. Atleti then utilized a special dispensation from LaLiga to acquire Geoffrey Kondogbia, who provided further cover — N/A.
Vitolo Ceased to be a useful player in December and finished the year with less than 500 minutes played across all competitions. This season likely closes the book on Vitolo’s Atlético career — given he has a high salary and just 12 months left on his contract, the club will try to move him this summer. The winger’s four-season stint in Madrid has hardly been a success, but he will go out as a league champion, so at least there’s that — 3.5.
Lucas Torreira Exceedingly-difficult season for him, personally and professionally, following his own deadline-day transfer from Arsenal. Struggled to break into Simeone’s plans particularly after the formation change and was an afterthought for much of 2021. His mother’s death from COVID-19 affected him profoundly and he spoke about wanting to leave Europe to return to South America. Arsenal will decide his future, but there’s a strong possibility Torreira will play elsewhere next season — 4.5.
Héctor Herrera Endured another season in which illness and injury kept him away from the team. The longtime Mexico star played under 700 minutes in LaLiga and struggled against high-level opposition, especially in the Champions League. Herrera played a bit-part role as a late sub in the season’s latter stages, but he simply has not convinced during his two seasons in Spain. Now 31, he has a year left on his deal and is a candidate to leave — 5.
Geoffrey Kondogbia Led the team in combined tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes after he joined from Valencia. Probably quite happy to have made that decision.
Kondogbia gained Simeone’s trust off the bench and won many plaudits for his performance in a critical win at Elche on May 1. His propensity for blowing up play in front of the defense and his reliable distribution are important qualities. Cholo recognizes that a player who swallows up ground like Kondogbia is needed to fight for trophies — 5.5.
Saúl Ñíguez He has divided opinion within Atlético’s fanbase after a rough year saw him lose his once-automatic place in Simeone’s 11.
Saúl suffered throughout the 2020/21 campaign, which saw his minutes and influence cut significantly as Lemar and Llorente emerged as decisive players. The 26-year-old struggled mentally and was highly self-critical during the season — and he was reportedly peeved that Cholo subbed him on only to remove him in the second half during a goalless draw at Barcelona last month.
After 13 years with Atlético, it might be time for Saúl to take on a new challenge, though many will be understandably unhappy if he does so — 5.5.
Thomas Lemar What a turnaround. Lemar nearly tumbled into the abyss last summer, as player, coach, and club sought solutions to stop a €70 million transfer from blowing up in their faces. Nine months later, Lemar is in France’s EURO 2020 squad after his most consistent campaign for Atlético.
Though he totaled less than 1,400 minutes in LaLiga (mostly due to nagging injuries), he scored once and landed three assists, becoming Atleti’s best dead-ball option and one of the most efficient dribblers in Spain. Moreover, the ex-Monaco midfielder tracked back diligently and consistently. He now has a Spanish title to go along with the Ligue 1 title he won in 2017 — 7.
Yannick Carrasco After Atlético sent to him to the Chinese Super League in 2018, Carrasco began the 2020/21 season with a proverbial chip on his shoulder, and he helped make it more practical for Simeone to switch to a modified 3-5-2 formation.
Not only did Carrasco plow through a mountain of defensive work as the converted left wing-back in that system, but underlying metrics throughout the season showed he was due for an offensive breakout at some point. That breakout came in a final month for the ages, when he scored four goals and laid on six assists in the final nine games to help Atlético win the league and complete his redemption arc — 7.5.
Koke Atlético’s captain was 21 years old the last time his team won LaLiga, when he was among the top assists providers in the country (he recorded 14 that season). This time around, he contributed a solitary goal and two assists from a more-central position, but his importance to the team rose even more.
Koke completed over 2,100 passes at an 88 percent clip and saw a particularly sharp increase in his long-ball accuracy. Only five players in the whole league made more passes under pressure than Koke, who took up a deeper-lying position than ever before following Thomas Partey’s exit. His leadership — evident through a leaked phone call in which he insisted Atleti would win LaLiga — was no longer merely by example.
Koke made the captaincy his own and evolved his play in 2020/21. More than ever, the 29-year-old deserves a seat at the table with LaLiga’s best midfield maestros — 8.
Marcos Llorente The battering ram Real Madrid didn’t want. Llorente enjoyed a spectacular 2020/21 season as his new club finished two points ahead of his old one — and to rub salt in the wound, he finished as one of only two players with double-digit goals and assists. Lionel Messi didn’t do that. Neither did Karim Benzema. Marcos did.
Granted, he benefited from some good fortune. The 26-year-old scored 12 goals, over-performing his expected goals mark (4.5). Based on expected assists (5.2), he shouldn’t have come near the 11 he eventually accrued. But beyond that, Llorente’s extraordinary strength and athleticism allowed him to operate as a supercharged Raúl García, pressing maniacally from penalty area to penalty area. Simeone weaponized Llorente’s telepathic connection with Kieran Trippier, which contributed to Atlético’s larger attacking overhaul, and Llorente even played right back when Trippier was suspended in the spring.
The next steps for Llorente include a trip to EURO 2020 with Spain and (likely) an improved contract, seeing as he became a core player for the rojiblancos over the past year. Given his age and conditioning, the sky is the limit — 8.5.
Who was Atlético’s best midfielder in 2020/21?
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