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How Nahuel Molina fits in as Atlético Madrid’s new right-back

The 24-year-old is Atlético’s fix to a gaping problem on the right side.

Italy v Argentina - Finalissima 2022 Photo by Catherine Ivill - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Update, July 28: Atlético officially announced Molina’s signing on Thursday afternoon. He’s signed a five-year contract and will be assigned the #16 shirt.

“After passing a medical examination at the Clínica Universidad de Navarra, a player arrives at Atlético Madrid with European experience and a capability to play both full-back positions,” the club’s statement read. “Molina is a steady player in defense who joins the attack very well. Proof of this is his ability to provide assists for his teammates. His strong set-piece delivery also helps his team, another of the qualities that makes Molina a very complete player.”

Check out Molina’s first interview with the club here:

Atlético Madrid are set to announce the signing of Nahuel Molina imminently, with the 24-year-old Argentinian international providing a solution to a right-back problem dating back to Kieran Trippier’s departure in January.

The deal with Udinese, for a reported fee of up to €16 million plus Nehuén Pérez, was drawn out too long for Molina to join his new teammates for the first phase of pre-season. After arriving in Madrid on Monday, Molina will have to join his team-mates for the second phase of their pre-season regime, with friendlies now kicking off.

The pressure will be on Molina to perform, particularly given the failed signing of Valencia’s Daniel Wass in the winter transfer window and the departure of Šime Vrsaljko to Greek giants Olympiacos. But how will he fit in at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano?

Nahuel Molina profile

If you’ve ever looked at Yannick Carrasco and thought, “wouldn’t it be great to have someone similar on the right flank,” then you’re most likely in for a treat.

Nahuel Molina is a full-back-cum-wing-back so offensive that he ranks in the top 1% of his positional peers across the top five leagues for non-penalty goals.

In fact, when we look at players who are statistically similar to him, Carrasco is one of those names to emerge. Others include Jonathan Clauss, also linked with Atlético earlier this summer, and Tottenham’s Spaniard Sergio Reguilón. In general terms, Molina has been likened to Trent Alexander-Arnold for his marauding and offensive nature, with 3.82 progressive passes per 90 and 0.92 dribbles per 90.

Udinese Calcio v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Ettore Griffoni/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Defensively, he is less-convincing. He ranks in the bottom 6% of all right-backs in Europe for tackles, at 1.19 per 90, and at 175cm / 5’9’’, it may be unsurprising to see him in the bottom 8% for aerial battles, winning only 0.51 per 90. In part, that has been down to having other duties, but it does also reflect the fact that Molina is not a strong defensive addition.

For those reasons, there are similarities to be drawn with Trippier’s signing back in 2019. The then-Tottenham player was prone to defensive mistakes and known for his offensive contribution. Molina may be similar, but will be coming into a different Atlético system and will be expected to adapt accordingly.

Can Molina rise to the challenge?

Udinese are not Atlético Madrid, and this is a player who has only been plying his trade in Europe for two years.

Having started out at Boca Juniors, Molina made only nine appearances for his boyhood club before loan spells at Defensa y Justicia and Rosario Central, both in Argentina, and then moved to Udine on a free transfer.

His achievements are remarkable though, given that at 24 he has already won a Copa América title with Argentina. It is with the national team where we can truly get a stronger indication of his quality, at least as coach Lionel Scaloni judges it to be.

Scaloni has regularly picked Molina ahead of fellow LaLiga talents Gonzalo Montiel, of Sevilla, and Juan Foyth of Villarreal. Transfer rumours this year alone show the high regard that is held for him, with both Arsenal and Juventus among the clubs to watch him and consider making an offer for his services.

With many of his attacking statistics ranking among the best in Europe, and still yet to reach the peak of his career, the signs are promising for Molina. The embalseño will be expected to step up quickly, and that won’t be easy as he experiences continental competition for the first time in Europe after seven appearances in the Copa Libertadores and seven outings in the Copa Sudamericana back in his native Argentina.

How will he fit into the Atleti structure?

Well, much of that could well depend upon what the Atleti structure is this season.

In Los Ángeles de San Rafael, Diego Simeone opted to train primarily with a 4-4-2 shape, also alternating with the 3-5-2 which has dominated over the past two seasons. That would impact whether Molina would feature as a right-back or as a right-wing-back.

Thankfully, he is adept at both.

Udinese ended the 2021/22 campaign playing a 3-5-2 shape under Gabriele Cioffi, but up until that point, Molina had featured in a more regular 4-4-2 shape or a 4-3-3, more akin to where he plays with Argentina. While Udinese’s instability on the pitch may not have helped him in every sense, it has made him an incredibly flexible and versatile option.

The signing of Molina would seem to point toward a focus on maintaining the 3-5-2. Simeone may well have been using time before Molina’s arrival to experiment, knowing Wass’s limitations as the only other alternative. Molina has excelled as a wing-back, and he would offer a more-symmetrical option opposite Carrasco as well as a more Trippier-like alternative.

Liverpool FC v Atletico Madrid: Group B - UEFA Champions League
Atlético had issues at right-back throughout 2021/22, with Kieran Trippier losing form and moving to Newcastle before a proper replacement could be acquired.
Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

While we seek to answer the question of how Simeone will set up the team next season, Molina’s arrival does not quite give us a clear-cut answer yet. It may take some time before the coach and Profe Ortega believe him to be fully fit and ready for minutes in the upcoming friendlies alone.

What role will he play?

As the club’s marquee signing (Cristiano Ronaldo pending), expectations on Molina will be big despite his lack of top-level experience and relative youth. That is primarily because Atlético’s chances of success could depend upon how quickly he settles in Madrid.

A struggle to adapt could rapidly see Marcos Llorente returning as the fail-safe “smash in case of emergency” right-back, and Atleti may well face many of the same struggles they encountered last season with almost the same squad.

If he does make an impact, Molina could establish the right-back spot as his own and become a regular. If that happens, the position will be his for years to come given his youth and the lack of competition.

He should have plenty of support too, given the fact that he has previously played with Rodrigo de Paul and Ángel Correa in the national team, and Simeone wanted Molina from the very start of the transfer window and so should be patient.

Molina has all it takes to become a new and improved version of the man he is replacing, but he also has many of the same promising features that Renan Lodi possessed when he arrived. Molina comes to Madrid with much more consistency and a track record Lodi did not have, and Rojiblancos fans should be excited about his arrival. But Lodi’s struggles are the best example yet of how important it is to find consistency quickly after joining Atlético Madrid.