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Reinildo’s devastating injury is Atlético’s newest problem

Simeone has options, but are any of them convincing?

Real Madrid CF v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by DAX Images/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The worst thing that happened to Atlético Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu on Saturday evening wasn’t teenager Álvaro Rodríguez’s equalizer with five minutes left on the clock. It wasn’t the red card shown to Ángel Correa, which has drawn widespread condemnation and even prompted club CEO Miguel Ángel Gil Marín to release another statement decrying the “incomprehensible” decision.

No, by far the worst thing that happened to Atlético de Madrid in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Real Madrid was Reinildo Mandava’s cruciate ligament tear — an injury that rules him out for the remainder of the 2022/23 season.

Reinildo underwent successful surgery on Sunday, and his recovery begins now. The 29-year-old might be ready for the start of next season and will hopefully be back stronger than ever. But in the meantime, his absence creates a serious problem for Diego Simeone.

What Reinildo offered

Reinildo had missed only one league game this season, playing 1,857 minutes over 22 appearances (all starts). No other Atlético outfield player has come close to that total. Only goalkeeper Jan Oblak (with 1,862) has accrued more minutes in LaLiga — and just five more minutes at that, demonstrating how essential Reinildo was for Simeone.

Though he took steps forward this season in developing his game as an attacking full-back, Reinildo’s value remained highest when Atlético were out of possession. The Mozambique international has been this team’s best defender since his arrival 13 months ago, able to line up as a natural left-back in a 4-4-2 or cover the left side as a wide center-back when Atleti lined up in a 3-5-2.

According to FBRef statistics, Reinildo’s 66 tackles attempted and 43 tackles won are team-leading totals — only Saúl Ñíguez has won more tackles per 90 (more on that later). Reinildo made twice as many defensive third tackles as Nahuel Molina, whose 23 such interventions are the second-highest total in the side. He’s also Atlético’s leader in:

  • middle third tackles won
  • number of dribblers tackled
  • interceptions
  • shot blocks
  • total blocks

Reinildo is not just Atlético’s most impactful defender. He’s arguably the Colchoneros’ second-most important player behind Antoine Griezmann. Atleti’s task to qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League becomes much harder without him.

Atlético remain behind third-place Real Sociedad but cut the gap to one point after La Real lost to Valencia on Saturday. Real Betis are within two points of fourth after beating Elche on Friday. Atleti still have head-to-head meetings to come with these teams, and both fixtures will be in the Cívitas Metropolitano.

Who can step in?

While Reinildo’s injury is a huge blow and will create a major headache for Cholo Simeone, one of the reasons that the coach is so handsomely paid is because he has shown time and time again he can solve problems like these. Simeone has been able to smash club and league records for touchline longevity because of his ability to adapt his pragmatic style to plug gaps that injuries created.

When Filipe Luis broke his leg in a game against Lokomotiv Moscow in 2018, Simeone moved Lucas Hernández from center-back to left-back, which created an opening for José Giménez to settle into central defense after playing multiple positions over the previous year. Atlético hit form in the spring, ended the league year in second place, and won the Europa League — even welcoming Filipe back before the season concluded.

Atleti won’t scale those heights this time around. Success this year will be finishing in LaLiga’s top four thanks to failure elsewhere. Getting through these final 15 league games without their most fundamental defensive piece will be challenging enough for the Rojiblancos.

Real Madrid CF v Atletico de Madrid - Copa Del Rey Quarter Final
Geoffrey Kondogbia hasn’t played in Atlético’s past four games, but he might have just found a way back into Simeone’s plans.
Photo by Ruben de la Fuente Perez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Simeone could move Mario Hermoso to left-back (I’ve called for him to do this before) and slot one of Geoffrey Kondogbia or Axel Witsel at center-back. Hermoso’s consistency in the heart of defense over the past couple months might make Simeone reluctant to do this. But Witsel has largely played well in central defense when called upon, and Kondogbia is a direct in-house replacement for Hermoso as another left-footed player (though he hasn’t played as a defender this season).

This option would also allow Simeone to keep the 4-4-2/4-3-3 shape that has keyed Atlético’s current seven-game unbeaten run in LaLiga. That’s important, because the other feasible option I see would force Atleti into playing the 3-5-2, which has yielded worse results this year.

That other possibility is a competition for minutes at left wing-back between Sergio Reguilón, Yannick Carrasco, and Saúl Ñíguez. Reguilón is set to miss at least the next few weeks while he recovers from a muscle tear, and it would be a surprise if he elbowed his way into Simeone’s plans for the season’s home stretch. But I’m including him here anyway, even though he’s played just 87 minutes in LaLiga.

Carrasco played left wing-back on Saturday and indeed throughout Atlético’s title-winning 2020-21 campaign. But he is not the most committed defender and he has been vocal about his preference to play closer to goal. While Carrasco is still one of Atleti’s most electrifying individual talents (3.6 shot-creating actions per 90), he hasn’t played like it for much of this season — the Belgian is still stuck on one goal and zero assists after 1,175 minutes in LaLiga.

Real Madrid CF v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Ruben de la Fuente Perez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Simeone won’t get much offense from the left side if Saúl takes the lion’s share of minutes at wing-back, but a) he’s already getting little from that side anyway and b) Saúl can come closest to replicating Reinildo’s stern defending. Per 90 minutes it is Saúl who leads Atlético in:

  • tackles won
  • attacking third tackles
  • pass blocks
  • total blocks

Saúl’s playing time has been spotty this season. Though he’s made 19 league appearances, the 28-year-old only cracked 600 minutes in the competition this past weekend as he received his first start since October. So if Simeone goes this route following Reinildo’s injury, Saúl would have a defined role at Atlético for the first time since 2019/20.

(The club is probably rooting for this, too. Saúl’s wages have long been a problem, and they’d like to offload him this summer if possible. Consistent minutes and consistent performance will draw out suitors.)

But through no fault of his own, Saúl will probably struggle to swallow up the left side à la Reinildo. Simeone might not have to change systems entirely and go away from what’s been working, but every weekend there will be one or two defenders playing out of position as Atlético try to qualify for the Champions League again.

Though Atleti don’t play another team in the top half until Betis visit in the first week of April, Reinildo’s injury spells trouble for Simeone any way you slice it. We’ll see if he can once more patch a hole that has appeared in his team.