Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid has never been known for its central midfielders; typically, these players have been more functional than flashy, more consistent than creative. From Tiago and Gabi to Saúl and Koke, these are players with big engines and who don’t define games with any regularity. Atlético’s success under Cholo has come from their ability to keep clean sheets and take whatever few chances appeared up front.
This season, however, that might change.
We saw last year how Simeone evolved his style and started to use Koke as the deepest midfielder in Thomas Partey’s place. This made space for two midfielders ahead of him, mainly Saúl and Marcos Llorente, who wowed LaLiga with his speed, athleticism — and as his 12 goals and 11 assists showed, his ability to decide games.
Rodrigo De Paul, newly-signed from Udinese, is a central midfielder who can play a variety of systems and in various roles. Saúl looks like he will leave, but with Koke, Llorente and De Paul as the central midfielders in a 3-5-2, bracketed by two wingers, Atlético might have the best group of midfielders in LaLiga (depending on what else happens in the transfer market).
Atleti also have Geoffrey Kondogbia and Héctor Herrera, two players who play in similar positions but operate differently. Kondogbia arrived last November after Partey was sold to Arsenal late in the summer transfer window. Atlético were already on the march to LaLiga at that stage with a new system in place and the France-born midfielder couldn’t break in. Now he has the advantage of a full preseason under Simeone, while Mexico international Herrera returns after winning the award for best player in the Gold Cup.
Depending then, of course, on how you want to classify Thomas Lemar and João Félix, who sometimes start in the middle as part of a midfield three, Atlético have steadily compiled a group that is deep and extremely talented. Not all of these players mentioned will stay at Atlético next season, and Saúl’s departure should shake things up even further as we wait to see what plan Simeone has for his triumvirate of Koke, Llorente and De Paul. But the competition and all the options available to Cholo makes this midfield one of the most tactically interesting aspects within Atlético’s squad.
Youngsters ready to play
Simeone called up a number of youth players to fill his matchday squads last season — Juan Manual Sanabria, Toni Moya, Óscar Castro and Josep Calavera among them — but none played a role in the team’s title success.
This preseason, the Argentine has called Javi Serrano and Alberto Moreno into his preseason friendlies squad list and given them opportunities while he waits for his more senior players to return after the summer.
Serrano is impressing so far, but Diario AS say that Atlético are in no hurry with the young midfielder. He has the profile of a traditional Simeone midfielder, but the manager is eyeing success now, meaning opportunities for teenagers will remain limited — especially as De Paul, Llorente, Koke, and Saúl are all in their primes.
Koke’s resurrection as one of Spain’s best midfield has been a sight to behold, and Llorente’s emergence as an insanely-athletic and highly-productive all-rounder has been as baffling as it has been fun to watch. De Paul has LaLiga experience and shone on a poor Udinese side last term. If Simeone can maximize those three players’ talents, Atlético will boast a midfield to match Casemiro, Kroos and Modrić at Real Madrid or Busquets, De Jong and Pedri at Barcelona.