Over the years, Jorge Resurrección Merodio has played in several roles for Atlético Madrid. On the left of midfield as a youngster, then in a central position, in a more advanced role, then in a deeper role, he’s played almost everywhere in the middle of the park. Koke has become the lynchpin in Diego Simeone’s system, around which everything revolves.
It’s a good job, then, that Koke is rarely injured. When he limped off from the Champions League tie with Porto, it was the first time Koke had suffered an injury in well over 18 months, dating back to January 2020.
But like any clockwork, if you take out the metronome, it ceases to tick. And that’s exactly what has happened to Atlético without Koke on more than one occasion.
Back in January 2020, Koke missed seven games, with Atlético taking 1.4 points per game from two wins, one draw and two defeats, alongside a Supercopa final defeat and Copa del Rey elimination against Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa from the third tier. That compared to an average of 1.9 points per game across the rest of the season.
Now in 2021/22, we are seeing a similar trend. Koke has been absent for three matches, in which Atlético have taken four points, 1.3 per game, compared to 2.5 points per game in the previous four fixtures.
Replacing the irreplaceable
Koke’s role has never been filled in his absence. Atlético’s squad has plenty of central midfield options, but with Koke having become such a staple in the side, it has been some time since anyone has had to fill in for him. Where Saúl Ñíguez could once take up the same kind of responsibilities, his departure has left the club with nobody who can do the that.
Simeone has been unclear on how to fill this gap. Against Athletic Club and Alavés, it was Rodrigo De Paul who played alongside Geoffrey Kondogbia, then it was Héctor Herrera against Getafe.
Part of the problem lies in that Atlético do not have a similar player to Koke in the squad. In possession, the more-similar option is Herrera. In terms of passing, De Paul is far more adventurous in looking to distribute the ball. He makes 5.97 shot creating actions per 90 minutes, compared to 2.42 for Koke, with 9.74 percent of his passes being more than 40 yards, compared to just 4.24 for Koke. What Koke looks to do to move play forward with his movement and runs, while De Paul does that with a wider passing range.
However, off the ball, Herrera’s stats which differ wildly. The former Porto man lacks Koke’s athleticism and so tends to stick deeper, making 3.08 tackles per 90 minutes compared to 1.62 for Koke. The differences don’t end there though, as only 0.52 of Koke’s tackles come in the defensive third, whereas all of Herrera’s do.
This fuels the more turgid and less-dynamic performances which Atlético have seen as the Kondogbia-Herrera duo fails to move high, with Herrera pressing only two-thirds as often as Koke.
As Atlético’s captain now returns to fitness, making the bench for the defeat to Alavés, it seems almost certain that he will come straight back into the side to face Barcelona, particularly with Kondogbia suspended. It will allow Simeone to regain a midfielder who performs a very specific function, which he has failed to replace in his absence.
What it means in attack
One of the consequences of being unable to replace Koke has come in attack.
Over the past three seasons, Koke has missed 12.3 percent of Atlético’s LaLiga fixtures, yet that percentage of games has contributed to a disproportionate 28.6 percent of games in which Atlético have failed to score over the same time period.
Koke himself is not the most offensive midfielder, with an xA of 0.04 per 90 minutes ranking below defenders like Mario Hermoso and Renan Lodi. But he does contribute significantly to build-up play. His movement and vision in the middle carry Atleti, particularly when up against sides who look to sit deep. His positioning sees him drop off when up against low blocks, creating space intelligently for more advanced players to drop centrally and deeper, opening up overlapping opportunities for wing-backs.
One of those to receive much of the criticism for Atleti’s dip in form has been Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman has been dropping deep into areas that Koke will often be the one to occupy. However, without Koke operating in those areas, Griezmann is instead treading on the toes of Marcos Llorente, who looks to run into space along the right side.
That is lethal for Atlético. The right flank is such an important element to their play. Overloading that flank and breaking the Llorente connection with Kieran Trippier has seen numerous moves break down. Against Getafe, it was no surprise that Atlético’s wide play became more successful with Griezmann off the pitch, as Šime Vrsaljko provided the winning assist for Luis Suárez with a cross from the right.
What it means for the captaincy
There has been a visible discipline issue without Koke on the field. Jan Oblak is the deputy for this team’s leader and captain, but no goalkeeper would ever be able to calm down a centre-forward at the other end of the field, as much as he might try.
Atlético were shown 12 yellow cards for dissent in their first six league matches, the highest number in LaLiga, but eight of them have come in the two games Koke missed. What is perhaps more concerning for Simeone is that three of those were shown to third and fourth captains José María Giménez and Stefan Savić.
Such a short temper has cost Atlético already, with Kondogbia the first player to face a suspension and accordingly miss the tie against Barcelona.
What’s more than just discipline is the team’s mentality. Atlético have now gone behind in four of their seven LaLiga fixtures to date. In three, two with Koke on the field, the reigning champions have been able to turn the tie around, but there is an evident mentality issue with Atleti being slow starters to games. Regardless of the tactics behind this, it is evident that Atleti need a leader on the field.
Koke is not the loudest or most expressive leader, but there is a tangible respect for him on the field. Without him tying everything together in the middle, there is desperation and chaos.
Cholo Simeone faces a real challenge when he loses his captain. In 2020/21, Atlético had him available all season and won the title. In 2021/22, they’ve already dropped five points in his absence. Still only 29, Koke has many years left, but Atlético must have an alternative available. Without a solution, Atlético will continue to look like a fish out of water every time injury or suspension robs them of their leader.