In this instalment of our annual end of season player rating series, we take a look at the essential cog of the machine that is Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid team. It’s been a curious campaign for many players in this position, with highs and lows and some rollercoaster rides in terms of form.
What’s more, there has only been one youngster to step in here, Pablo Barrios — who has mixed with the likes of captain Koke, World Cup winner Rodrigo de Paul, and more, in one of the most hotly-contested positions on Atlético’s roster.
If any of the players in the Atlético squad can be labelled “consistent” in the 2022/23 campaign, Koke would surely have to be the leading candidate.
This was Koke’s 11th consecutive season making over 30 appearances in LaLiga, playing over 73% of minutes available, behind only Nahuel Molina and Antoine Griezmann. He spent much of the campaign playing in a deeper role — which in part explains why it was his first season since 2009/10 without a goal for the first team, filling a gap that Diego Simeone desperately needed to occupy.
Koke’s composure in the role, and his organisational and leadership skills to shepherd the ever-changing defence behind him, were what set him apart. Nobody completed more than his 1,784 passes, as he pulled the strings in the middle of the park. Those around him may have had more licence to add flair, but only Rodrigo de Paul was more progressive with his passing. Koke’s role was to provide the transition that would set up some of the rapid counter-attacking that made Atleti stand out in early 2023.
Koke’s importance in this side cannot be understated, both on and off the field. Even as he turned 31 in January, he continues to show the stamina and fight to be a key cog in Simeone’s machine. His stats and consistency back that up, and he is a true leader by example in Atlético de Madrid’s midfield. 8
Rodrigo de Paul
It’s hard to imagine that the Rodrigo de Paul who had his every touch booed and whistled halfway through the season could end the campaign as an “untouchable” player by the vast majority of Atlético fans.
To be fair to the Argentine, the negative reaction from the fanbase was more for his off the field behaviour than on it. His decision to extend his time in Argentina for “personal reasons” citing his father’s ill health, only to show up supporting his pop star girlfriend at an awards ceremony in Miami, seemed to fly in the face of everything associated with Simeone teams.
Yet still, the coach reintegrated him into the squad — and after the World Cup, de Paul stood out. Whereas before he had been playing somewhat within himself, seemingly holding back for fear of an injury that could rob him of a shot at Qatar, he exploded after the World Cup, with all the confidence and arrogance of a world champion.
9 - Atletico de Madrid's Rodrigo de Paul has been involved in 9 goals in LaLiga 22/23 (2 goals and 7 assists in 30 games) as many as in his previous his 3 previous seasons combined in the competition (9, 4 goals and 5 assists in 70 matches). Inspired. pic.twitter.com/7xyypWKsLY— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 28, 2023
De Paul accounted for 12% of Atlético’s assists this season, recording 0.21 assists per 90 minutes, showing a vision and link-up with the forward line that was second to none from the midfield. He also upped his game defensively too, with 3.45 possession recoveries in the opposition half per 90, a key reflection of the team’s more effective pressing in the second part of the campaign.
Since December, you’d arguably be hard-pressed to find a better creative midfielder in LaLiga than de Paul. His ability to spot a pass in the final third unparalleled in this Atleti squad, offering something that nobody else does. Now it’s time for him to maintain that over a full season and prove his worth. 7.5
After being in the top three for minutes played by outfield players in the past two seasons, nobody was expecting Marcos Llorente to drop to 13th this season — albeit with several positives to take away from his form when fit.
Operating down the right, Nahuel Molina’s stability after settling meant that Llorente could finally move to an offensive right midfield slot and flash some of the athletic ability that made him one of Europe’s most-feared midfielders in 2020/21. Those moments were the green sprouts giving hope that Llorente’s potential could be exploited to the max.
Llorente’s struggle with injuries for the first time in his career are giving cause for concern, though. Muscle strains cost him 18 games, more than he had in his entire time as a professional footballer before this season. Getting the right balance of rest and recovery and preparations for 2023/24 this summer could be decisive in determining his future.
This season was perhaps not the one that Llorente was hoping for last summer, but there are reasons to be optimistic. His link-up play with Molina and the fact that he is no longer deployed at wing-back as a priority mean that he remains a key player going forward. 6
Between one reason and another, the 2022/23 campaign saw Thomas Lemar feature for fewer minutes than in three of his four previous seasons at Atlético. And few fans will have missed him when he hasn’t been out on the field.
There have been positives. Lemar’s passes in the final third jumped from 4.45 per 90 over the past three seasons to 5.58 last season, and his 0.15 xA per 90 was one of the highest marks on the team — Rodrigo de Paul and Yannick Carrasco were the only other midfielders to compete.
Beyond that, it has been another campaign where injuries have had their say. Lemar missed 13 games and struggled for consistency — he started four consecutive games only once all season. If it wasn’t for the likes of Stefan Savić and Josema Giménez keeping him company in the physio’s room, the Frenchman’s absence might have been even more notable.
Yet again, Lemar is just an okay option. He gets the job done, is neat and tidy, retains possession. But this is not the €70 million playmaker that Atleti thought they were getting. He’s begun to pick up the level somewhat, but he is still someway off de Paul’s level in the offensive central midfield role, and his defensive work can’t compete. 5
An incredibly bizarre season for the Frenchman. Having played in 16 of the first 19 games of the LaLiga season, Kondogbia then played only 40 minutes across four appearances in the second half of the campaign. Cholo Simeone completely froze him out, making it clear that he had no future at the club — and Kondogbia has accordingly moved on, signing for Marcelino’s Marseille on June 30.
While his form early on in the season was far from the worst in the squad, there were question marks over Kondogbia’s commitment and it appears that they have led to friction with the coaching staff. It may be hard to impress when not given the chance, but others climbed far ahead of him in the pecking order. 3
The fact that Saúl played in six different positions last season alone says much about his current role in the squad. He’s become a real jack of all trades, master of none, making 38 appearances in total but starting only 15 of those.
Saúl’s form did pick up towards the end of the campaign, with two goals in the last four games, of which he started all four. His work rate and commitment had clearly done enough to earn him a shot.
For Atlético, the problem remains that Saúl is amongst the highest-earners and is realistically only a bit-part player. At no time last season, even when he showed signs of reaching his best in specific moments at the end of the campaign, has he ever been able to justify such a wage. He has a definite use for Simeone, who adores the flexibility and attitude that Saúl has brought this season, but his wage does not reflect that. 4
Another player who had a Jekyll and Hyde season. Carrasco’s penalty miss with the final kick of the game against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League was arguably the defining moment of this season, and it summed up a dreadful first few months to the campaign when it seemed that the Belgian’s mind was in Barcelona, Qatar or just about anywhere other than the left wing of the Cívitas Metropolitano.
After the World Cup, where his Belgium side disappointed again, Carrasco looked reinvigorated. He hasn’t quite hit the heights of the end of the 2020/21 or 2021/22 seasons, when he was Atleti’s best player, and that may explain why some would not be dismayed to see him depart. But when motivated, the 29-year-old remains a premium performer.
Carrasco’s role in this team remains crystal clear. His 146 progressive carries made him the only player in the squad to reach three digits, the ability to take the ball forward down the left flank being an essential part of Simeone’s game plan. Equally, he received more progressive passes than anyone else, and is a huge outlet for the team under pressure, whether or not he is the one in possession.
The challenge for Carrasco once again comes in his consistency. Carrasco’s highlights reel for the season is as good as they come, but his lowlights reel, if such a thing were to exist, would provide you with enough footage for days. He continues to be capable of making a real difference, but only when he wants to. As he turns 30 in September, his backwards progress from last season may make this summer a good time to cash in. 6.5
A breakout campaign for Barrios that both exceeded expectations and disappointed at the same time.
Having made the first team bench three times in 2021/22, Barrios getting his debut in 2022/23 was a huge achievement, and he can certainly feel satisfied with 26 first team appearances in his first full campaign in Simeone’s squad, earning himself a professional contract in the process.
However, Barrios may feel frustrated that the average duration of those 26 appearances was just 35 minutes. After starting against Elche, Barcelona and Osasuna over December and January, few expected him to be limited to substitute appearances until the final day of the season against Villarreal, when he would again return to the XI.
Barrios is only 20, and his adaptation was rapid, with an 84% pass accuracy in his first season at this level showing that he adjusted quickly. But he will be looking to build upon that despite the competition for places next season. 7
Who was Atlético Madrid’s best midfielder in 2022/23?
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