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Newfound consistency paying off for Mario Hermoso and Atlético

The much-maligned central defender has experienced a resurgence since the World Cup. What does it mean for his future?

Atletico de Madrid v Sevilla FC - LaLiga Santander Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Mario Hermoso will be named in Luis de la Fuente’s initial Spain squad for upcoming games against Norway and Scotland. And while there are over 60 names on that pre-list, the Atlético Madrid defender’s inclusion is more than merited.

The central defender has come back from the brink at Atlético and is now a full-time starter for the club. There has even been talk of a contract renewal following his spectacular fall from grace and even more-spectacular resurgence in the heart of Diego Simeone’s defence.

Hermoso’s fall was incredible, swift and complete. He regularly conceded silly penalties last season and was nothing more than an afterthought after FC Barcelona’s Adama Traoré repeatedly beat him in a game at Camp Nou last February. To begin this season, Hermoso confronted fans in the stand and remained firmly out of favour, with Simeone routinely preferring to slot natural midfielder Axel Witsel into defence instead.

Hermoso looked like a player who needed a break from it all. But how quickly things change in this sport is one of the most enthralling aspects about it.

Simeone has spoken about Atlético being a different team before and after the World Cup. Antoine Griezmann has regained his form, and both Rodrigo de Paul and Nahuel Molina have improved since they won the World Cup, yet Hermoso might be the cog in the wheel making Atlético’s current form possible.

Hermoso saw 366 minutes of total action in four starts before the World Cup and has played 1,210 minutes since the World Cup ended, starting 14 times (including each of Atlético’s past 11 games). Atlético have lost just one of the past 16 games Hermoso has started in all competitions since October, and the Rojiblancos have shipped only one open-play goal in the past seven weeks of LaLiga, when he has been ever-present.

Hermoso’s resurgence has come about largely because he is now playing a role that suits him perfectly. We describe it here as the left centre-back in a back three, and sometimes as a left-back with license to move forward on the wing, almost like a winger. He also becomes an inverted full-back sometimes and sits beside the central midfielder when the opposition are not pushing out on Atlético.

All these things serve one purpose — getting Hermoso on the ball in space when he’s a left centre-back. He can pick apart the opposition and launch the build-up phase from the back better than José Giménez, Stefan Savić, or Axel Witsel. This also serves to keep him further from goal if and when Atlético’s penalty area gets more congested.

Pushing Hermoso forward as an overlapping wing-back leaves Savić and Giménez at the back, two more traditional defenders. Moving him into the middle as a double-pivot serves the same purpose — it minimizes the damage from the risks Hermoso likes to take. Koke can push further forward into more influential positions, and his “partner” is another left-footed midfielder with the ability to play through the lines.

We wrote about the importance of Hermoso and left-footed passers on this site a number of years ago, back when Atlético won the title. He hadn’t come into the form that made him so essential to Atlético since that fateful campaign, feeding into a frequent criticism that Cholo Simeone isn’t able to develop players. That criticism is not entirely unfair, as sometimes Simeone has tried to mould players into what he thinks they should be rather than amplify what they are.

Yet the Argentine deserves credit where it’s due on Hermoso. He is now more reminiscent than before of Lucas Hernández, the last versatile left-footed defender Simeone had. While Hermoso might never be a rock at the back, a defender who is consistent on a weekly basis, he offers lots of positive things to a team. Simeone has enhanced these traits while masking the player’s negative characteristics — such as the “happy feet” he gets when skillful wingers pull him wide and his track record in a back four being littered with positional errors.

Girona FC v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Hermoso’s contract ends in 2024, and for a while the assumption has been that Atlético would sell him before next season. But it may not be in the club’s best interest to do that now.

Hermoso’s former clubs, Espanyol and Real Madrid, are due portions of any fee Atlético receive for him. Los Pericos will receive 20 percent of the player’s future transfer fee, and half of that must go to Madrid, for whom Hermoso played between 2005 and 2017. Strong Premier League interest could change things — after all, this is the league that decided Matheus Cunha was worth €50 million — but given how the club operates, Atlético’s board will likely decide it’s not worth selling Hermoso at a loss.

Furthermore, Atlético are planning a fourth consecutive transfer window without “big signings” (i.e. expensive, more glamorous acquisitions). If there are important sales — such as João Félix moving to Chelsea on a permanent deal, or Nottingham Forest purchasing Renan Lodi — then Atlético figure to reinvest much of the money into “low-cost” additions or renewals for the first team, as has been procedure over the past two years.

Hermoso is one of several Colchoneros with a contract that expires in the next 18 months, alongside Stefan Savić, Yannick Carrasco, Álvaro Morata, and club captain Koke. Simeone’s deal expires after next season, too. Decisions will have to be made soon about these players, and the legendary manager’s future hangs over all of them.

Hermoso is regarded as a dressing room leader and even served as captain during Atlético’s 4-1 home win over Celta Vigo in September. He’s earned respect in spite of his wildly-inconsistent three-and-a-half year stint at the Metropolitano. Simeone and Atlético are likely to factor that in when determining whether Hermoso’s recent top-level performances in a position of need are nothing more than a purple patch of form — or an exciting sign of things to come.

So don’t be surprised if Hermoso makes it into the final Spain squad, de la Fuente’s first, given his unique profile and the role he is playing — and thriving in — under Cholo Simeone. And the possibility is getting stronger that the 27-year-old will extend his stay in his native Madrid, continuing to turn out for Atlético.


Would it be a good idea to hand Mario Hermoso a new contract?

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    Yes, absolutely
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