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Daniel Wass pursuit shows Atlético are unclear about the future

An unorthodox and puzzling transfer strategy is being deployed as Atlético chase after the Valencia player.

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Denmark v England - UEFA Nations League - Group 2 - League A - Parken Stadium Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

Atlético Madrid lost Kieran Trippier to Newcastle United earlier this month and need someone to replace the English defender now. Valencia’s Daniel Wass was linked with a move to the Wanda Metropolitano before Jose Bordalás rejected the idea. However, more recent reports state that the Dane is very close to joining Diego Simeone’s side.

The problem is that Atlético need to decide whether they are building for the future or trying to take what they can from this season.

After Wednesday’s loss to Real Sociedad, Simeone insisted Atlético will continue to fight in LaLiga and the Champions League. But based on what we have seen from this team so far, they won’t win either competition.

It’s worth wondering whether Atlético will (or should) continue to spend money on a squad that is likely to get torn apart in the summer anyway.

Real Sociedad v Atletico de Madrid - Copa Del Rey Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Atlético have a host of issues, from tactical incoherence to individual errors, but the defending is the most worrying part of the current debacle. The results speak for themselves, with losses to Sevilla, Granada, Real Madrid, Athletic Club and Real Sociedad in just over a month. The constant change from three to four at the back makes signing a defensive player even more difficult, and Atlético also want someone who can play as a center-back.

Do they want a winger? Or a full-back? Or a natural center-back?

Should it go through, the Wass signing suggests Atlético aren’t really sure and are instead applying a bandage — picking up a versatile, midfielder-turned-full-back with good set-piece delivery.

Who should be signed instead?

We used a clustering technique (k-Means) to group players similar to Trippier in an effort to find a suitable replacement. The data was taken from Statsbomb via FBRef. We filtered out players who are not defenders (some players have defender and midfielder tags, so if you see some strange names in there, they are most likely midfielders who sometimes play as defenders).

The data we used to cluster the players were selected with the positive traits Trippier brought to the table for Simeone and the things he needs to replace.

(If you have any doubts about what these stats mean, you can check out their glossaries above the tables.)

The stats we included were:

  • Total passes
  • Key passes
  • Final third passes
  • Crosses into the penalty area
  • Progressive passes
  • Tackles
  • Pressures
  • Tackles + Interceptions
  • Touches
  • Attacking dribbles
  • Carries

Nordi Mukiele keeps popping up in a variety of places when potential Trippier replacements are discussed. The Athletic mention the French defender as part of their “Sensible Transfers” segment. The Atlético Stats Twitter account also names the 24-year-old as a candidate, along with several other players. He falls somewhere between Brighton’s Marc Cucurella and Chelsea’s Reece James on the plot above (the distance between points doesn’t really matter here as we clustered across multiple dimensions, so this plot is just looking at pressure and crosses into the penalty area).

Doing business with Red Bull Leipzig as the January transfer market closes would be quite difficult. Mukiele has a year-and-a-half left on his contract. and it would take a significant fee to make Leipzig even consider selling him. The German side bought Mukiele for €15 million in 2018 and surely see an opportunity to, at least, double their money on the versatile defender.

RB Leipzig - Arminia Bielefeld Photo by Jan Woitas/picture alliance via Getty Images

That might not be a bad deal if Atlético were sure of the direction in which they are going. Spending big now might turn into a disastrous move if Simeone decides to call it a day and walks away from the Wanda in the summer. Mukiele might be a solid-enough get, but Atlético might as well just wait to spend big if this season is already lost.

With that in mind, right now it’s a safer bet to buy or loan an inexpensive and experienced player.

One player who popped up on Mukiele’s “similar players” page on FBRef was energetic Celta Vigo full-back and club captain Hugo Mallo. He also appears on our list of players similar to Trippier who are 25 or older. Mallo should be on the present shortlist, with an eye on Mukiele for the future.

But as we know, Atlético seem to be edging closer to Wass. The former Celta man is incredibly versatile, a slightly-less energetic version of Saúl Ñiguez. He doesn’t have the overall quality of the Marcos Llorente/Saúl hybrid player, but he is obviously being looked at as a stop-gap solution. He turns 33 in May, and he is not as powerful a runner as Trippier or as defensively-solid as someone like Llorente.

There has been no fee mentioned for Wass, but he will be inexpensive as his contract runs out in June. The player has apparently stated his desire to leave Valencia, and that should help in negotiations. But signing Wass for a fee in January, when he is out of contract in the summer, is another sign of Atlético’s incoherent strategy of late.

Who are Atlético, and who do they want to become? Bringing in Wass won’t help us answer those questions.