Atlético Madrid’s switch to a back three last season saw them lose just once from the start of October through the end of February in LaLiga. The tactical switch was made possible, if not necessary, by Diego Simeone’s options at center-back.
A new season with new options
Atlético are currently wrapping up preseason preparations at Los Ángeles de San Rafael, where they have taken summer training each year since 1972. Simeone has four centre-backs in the squad at the moment: Stefan Savić, Marco Moreno, Mario Hermoso and Francisco Montero.
José Maria Giménez and Felipe Monteiro will join that quartet later in the summer after playing in the Copa América. Nehuén Pérez will be with the squad, too, after he plays at the Olympics with Argentina.
Pérez is a player to keep an eye on and Atlético still believe in the young defender’s future. The 21-year-old played 14 times for Granada last season, with most of those appearances coming at the tail end of the year. A report in Diario AS earlier in the summer said Simeone wanted to have a closer look at Nehuén during preseason to see if he could contribute or whether another loan move would be the best decision.
It will be difficult for a player like Pérez to get minutes — and with Felipe, Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier occupying the three non-Spanish places in the squad, it means an injury or transfer would have to happen in order to make room for him.
Defending is as serious as a heart attack for Diego Simeone, and he requires a certain level of experience. The likes of Savić (and Diego Godin before him) were able to cover up the deficiencies of younger, more inexperienced players — the older and more grizzled, the better for Cholo.
Savić has become Simeone’s spiritual leader on the field and emerged as the leader of this defense, playing on the right of a back three with Felipe and Giménez sharing minutes in the middle. The Montenegrin protects Jan Oblak like he was his son while covering for Kieran Tripper at right-back. Mario Hermoso played as the left center-back who occasionally slid over to left-back.
Felipe’s level was not always consistent last season, but he shared the workload with the oft-injured Giménez when the Uruguayan wasn’t available. Hermoso is the only option at left centre-back, and when he is out or needed to play at left-back, a switch to a 4-4-2 is necessary.
Javi Montero, like Hermoso, is another left-footed option — he is now 22 and came up through the youth ranks while Simeone has been the manager. He played on loan at Besiktas last season, where he won the Turkish league. He will have absorbed the principles of Simeone’s defensive mantra over the years and shows promise in becoming more like a Simeone-styled centre-back.
Atlético have good options in this position and a tactical flexibility not seen in recent years. If Simeone continues to develop this unit — and Atlético as a whole — into a ball-playing team, they will need more options and might have to start recruiting differently. But with Diego Simeone still a defense-first manager (for now), the colchoneros remain rock-solid at the back compared to the competition.