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Selecting Atlético Madrid’s best midfield for the 2022/23 season

Diego Simeone has as many as eight players fighting for three places. Who wins out in the center of the park?

Cadiz CF v Atletico Madrid - Trofeo Carranza Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images

Despite weeks of rumors — months, even — only one Atlético Madrid midfielder (Héctor Herrera) has left the first-team squad this summer, replaced by a player who is a better fit for the team (Axel Witsel).

The competition for places is already playing out in Atlético’s preseason games — and it looks heated. For one, Koke’s spot doesn’t appear guaranteed, even as the club captain is only nine official games from breaking Adelardo Rodríguez’s hallowed appearances recored.

Rodrigo de Paul endured a disappointing debut season in the Spanish capital, but Simeone is counting on his compatriot to turn it around in 2022/23. The coach is also extremely interested in recovering Marcos Llorente’s form and giving him an opportunity to link up with new right wing-back Nahuel Molina.

Meanwhile, Thomas Lemar, who has earned many plaudits from Cholo over the past two seasons, reportedly signed a contract renewal to 2027 with a reduced salary. Saúl Ñíguez is a consideration once more following his return from Chelsea, even though Simeone knows it will be a challenge helping the versatile former Spain international find his best form again.

And we’ve somehow made it this far without mentioning Geoffrey Kondogbia, who was Atlético’s best midfielder a season ago and occupies an essential role as a shield in front of the defense. Simeone has also slotted Antoine Griezmann into midfield this preseason as an interior playmaker, and the Frenchman contributed to two goals in the Trofeo Carranza game at Cádiz.

Cadiz CF v Atletico Madrid - Trofeo Carranza Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images

Add Witsel (who has been playing mostly at center-back) and Atlético have eight players fighting over three spots, assuming Simeone persists with the 3-5-2 formation.

Some of the possibilities are headache-inducing, and exciting as well. There’s half a squad’s worth of players at the Metropolitano who underperformed last season, and therefore should be eager to turn things around this season — particularly as there’s an upcoming World Cup dividing the campaign into two.

Below are six different lineups I’ve been thinking about this preseason while wondering if Atlético’s boardroom decision to stand pat and commit less than €30 million toward new signings might actually turn out to be a good thing. After all, the team just completed a perfect preseason, scoring 13 goals and letting in just one.

Possibility #1

Though the coach will never abandon the principles that kicked off this decade-long run of consistency (meaning we’ll see the low-block 4-4-2 from time to time), the way forward for Simeone’s Atlético remains a stronger commitment to the 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation.

Cholo wants the Llorente-Molina connection to be as strong as the Llorente-Kieran Trippier combination that tore apart LaLiga during the 2020/21 season. The new duo will have every chance to build chemistry as soon as possible — and in this particular lineup, Llorente and Molina would be the go-to pair. Yannick Carrasco has to make sacrifices at left wing-back, and neither Koke nor Kondogbia offer elite playmaking ability through the middle. Look for João Félix to drop behind the forward line, using his agility and dribbling to aid ball progression.

Possibility #2

This lineup leaves a lot of work for 33-year-old Witsel — who tore his Achilles tendon in 2021 and has lost some mobility (which could be one of the reasons Simeone is trying him out at center-back in the preseason fixtures). Still, there’s no denying the explosiveness and creativity in that midfield line.

Perhaps this is more of a late-game dice roll from Simeone, or an option for teams that will cede possession to Atlético. The Rojiblancos have annual problems against sides that sit deep and defend in lines of four or five. For that reason, it’s probably my favorite among the six choices listed here.

Possibility #3

Simeone has experimented with a João-Griezmann-Álvaro Morata trident this summer. If Morata stays at the club past Sept. 1 — which now seems likely, even more so after he burned Juventus for a hat trick on Sunday — I think this lineup has a chance to get serious run as a natural, further evolution of the 3-5-2.

Some portions of the Atlético fanbase have not favorably viewed the Spain forward’s return from his two-year sojourn in Turin. But Morata is a useful player even if his club-level goalscoring record is disappointing. The 29-year-old can be a net-positive aerial presence and a capable (if not willing) option in hold-up play.

I inserted Renan Lodi into this lineup because at some point he has to take the next step. The best chance of it happening might be with rock-solid Reinildo Mandava cleaning up the defensive messes he tends to leave behind.

Possibility #4

Here, I’ve dropped Witsel into the heart of defense, given José Giménez is a virtual lock to miss 10-20 games each season with various injuries (and Atlético have refused to sign any competition for him in three years).

In this formation, Kondogbia would shield the back three and allow Koke to influence the game from a more-advanced position. The captain struggled mightily last season when Atleti hoped to replicate the formula that produced a league title in 2021. The 30-year-old simply cannot hold up for long stretches at the base of midfield, especially with all the games and all the minutes he’s logged in his career.

With more security behind him, Koke can funnel the ball to any member of this fluid front three. I placed João at the tip, a concept I wrote about a few months ago. This formation is one example of how Simeone can build an attack for the Portuguese — where he can poach in the penalty area instead of having his ankles hacked at 35 yards outside the box, 15 times per game.

Last season, Robbie Dunne posited on Colchonero Chat that Llorente could step in for Griezmann as the right-sided forward in a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3. I’d like to see that sometime this year.

There’s also a home for Saúl here. The 27-year-old probably won’t have much luck breaking into his old central midfield role barring injury (which, of course, can’t be ruled out).

Possibility #5

A no-nonsense 4-4-2 that you can imagine will be deployed in the bigger games. It can be successful if Reinildo and Molina grow into being natural full-backs. The former found his home as a left-sided center-back upon arriving from Lille, while the latter stood out as a wing-back in Udinese’s 3-5-2.

Daniel Wass once seemed all but certain to leave after an unhappy and injury-plagued half-season. But the Dane has received a second chance this preseason and seems to have worked himself into a viable backup for Molina, or someone who can cover for the Argentina international on the right. The 33-year-old’s stunning long-range missile at Cádiz didn’t hurt his chances of sticking around, either.

Possibility #6

Finally, this is where I think Griezmann, at this point in his career, helps Atlético the most — as an interior midfielder, with de Paul (ideally) making chances on the opposite flank.

Griezmann still possesses elite creativity and a high work rate, as he demonstrated in last season’s Champions League fixtures. We can debate whether that’s worth paying FC Barcelona €40 million next year (I don’t think it is), but there’s a chance the 31-year-old stays injury-free and finds his footing again. He’s had too good of a career to write him off completely.

One more thing: I know Ángel Correa does not appear in any of these lineups. This does not mean I don’t personally value the player or feel like he’s leaving. Correa fits most of these lineups like a glove — especially the two-forward formations.

But last season, Simeone turned away from Correa in favor of sticking Griezmann or Suárez into the lineup. The squad still has five recognized forwards in it (and the returning Morata has taken Suárez’s place after completing an encouraging preseason).

We’ll see what the minutes breakdown and playing time division look like, but it can be viewed positively and negatively that a player as good as Correa does not walk into any of these six configurations.