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A short history of Atlético Madrid right-backs

Matt Doherty, set to debut this weekend, is the latest signing at a position Atlético have struggled to fill.

Atletico Madrid v FC Internazionale - International Champions Cup 2018 Photo by Diego Souto/Power Sport Images/Getty Images

For Diego Simeone, a right back is something like the porridge in the “Goldilocks” children’s story. Most are just fine, but he can’t seem to get the right blend of exactly what he’s looking for.

Matt Doherty’s deadline day signing is the latest move at a position that has rarely made sense for Atlético Madrid. The moment is now for Doherty, who is expected to debut as a starter against Sevilla on Saturday with Nahuel Molina suspended and Saúl Ñíguez likely to deputise in place of Reinildo.

Ever since Juanfran Torres moved to São Paulo in 2019 to wind down his career, Simeone has been searching for his new forever right-back. Some were too fast, others too slow. Some were too inconsistent, others not daring enough. None of them just right — well, Kieran Trippier seemed to be, but we’ll get to him later.

Santiago Arias, Jesus Gámez, Javier Manquillo and Silvio all played minutes too (along with a host of others) but Juanfran, Trippier and Molina are the “big three” right backs for this exercise, and we also saw a healthy portion of Vrsaljko minutes too.

Players ranked in minutes played in LaLiga. Stats also based on LaLiga unless otherwise stated.

Juanfran Torres

Juanfran played 27,845 minutes for Atlético Madrid. He was a symbol of Cholismo in its early years and was the quintessential Simeone right back.

A winger-turned-right back following his arrival from Osasuna in 2011, Juanfran was not the kind who thought of defensive duties as a suffocating part of the job — on the contrary, he did them dutifully. He played 355 times for Atlético, registering six goals and 41 assists in all competitions.

Most games played under Diego Simeone in LaLiga

Player   Games Played
Player   Games Played
Koke 373
Oblak, Jan 285
Correa, Ángel 256
Ñíguez, Saúl 246
Godín, Diego 243
Gabi 226
Griezmann, Antoine 226
Juanfran 223
Filipe Luís 198
Giménez, José 187

Kieran Trippier

Liverpool FC v Atletico Madrid: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Trippier is second on the list of both assists (11) and expected assists (12.44) under Simeone in LaLiga. He is the last right-back to truly gain Simeone’s trust, and he became a vital part of Atlético’s last title-winning side two years ago.

In fact, you could say he was the most important part of that side, even if Luis Suárez might stake a claim for that role. Trippier’s presence unlocked Marcos Llorente, who put up career-best goalscoring and assisting figures.

Trippier’s absence through injury — and his eventual sale to Newcastle — forced Simeone to reconsider his tactics. The England international was so good in attack that he couldn’t just replace him. He needed to push his right-back into a right wing-back role and play with three defenders. Trippier’s departure created the current uncertain situation facing the right side of Atlético’s defense.

Šime Vrsaljko

Villarreal CF v Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Manuel Queimadelos/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

The Croatian defender had a love-hate relationship with Cholo Simeone. He logged his 6,383 minutes across multiple years and stints as the club’s starting right-back, as two knee injuries and a loan to Inter Milan interrupted his time in red and white. There were times when he seemed to have won Simeone over, and others when he was obviously just filling in as an injury replacement.

Nahuel Molina

Real Madrid CF v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Finally, we turn to Molina, who has improved in recent weeks and seems to have a renewed sense of purpose after winning the FIFA World Cup with Argentina.

In 26 games for Atlético since joining last summer, Molina has three assists and no goals. All three assists have come since the winter World Cup. Despite a shaky start, he’s now up to 3.12 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, slightly better than his figure at Udinese a season ago.

The problem with projecting too far into the future and what Matt Doherty might do is that Diego Simeone’s future at the club is up in the air, and the Irish international’s contract is only for six months anyway.

Simeone has notoriously been reluctant to offer minutes to new signings that he hasn’t specifically asked for. Maybe Doherty was someone who he wanted, and maybe he will eventually break into the starting XI and convince Cholo. But until he actually gets onto the field, we won’t know.