Success in football comes from a combination of many factors, but the clearest way to explain Atletico’s success is the grinta (fighting spirit) of their players. Last summer, after managing to keep hold of star Antoine Griezmann and the promising Saul Niguez, president Enrique Cerezo and Diego Simeone convinced veterans Filipe Luis (33), Juanfran (34) and Diego Godin (33) to stay with the club for one last campaign. Godin may be the most important player in Simeone’s balanced structure, but it’s clear after this season the Uruguayan will leave to Italy and join Inter Milan.
As with Joao Miranda, Diego Simeone has to deal with an inescapable problem: age. Football isn’t static. Things change often, more often than before, and being at 100% physically is key if you want to play for Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. Last season, he replaced the veteran Gabi with Rodrigo. This season, his skipper missed several matches due to injuries.
After nine years, Diego Godin’s stay in Spain is coming to an end. The Uruguayan rock cemented himself as a household name in spells at Villarreal and mostly Atletico Madrid as well as winning the 2011 Copa America with his national team. Godin will remain an icon in Madrid for many reasons. He was a real leader, vice-captain when Gabi was still there, and actual skipper.
If anyone knows one thing about Diego Godin it’s that he doesn’t appear to have a weak foot. This pedidexterity is something that can go a long way. Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic, for example, were almost completely phased out of the game when Juventus visited them in the UEFA Champions League first leg of Round 16.
Of course, Godin doesn’t just offer a solid assurance, but also scores goals (three this campaign). This is an area where Atletico are really dangerous, with his partner Jose Maria Gimenez also bagging five goals in La Liga.
Despite what many people say, since Pep Guardioa has revolutionised football from his managerial bow at Barcelona in 2008, good passing is not important for a defender when you are at Atletico. Strength, speed and defensive reactions are the most necessary traits for a central defender in a Cholo’s game. Let’s take a look at the possibilities to replace Godin.
The internal option
Since his debut two seasons ago, 23-year-old Lucas Hernandez has already been a UEFA Champions League finalist and won a World Cup. For club and country, he has definitively nailed down the left-back slot at the expense of Luis Filipe and humourist Benjamin Mendy. The French left-back is versatile and physically strong, even if he weighs just 76kg.
He bears the hallmarks of his Uruguayan partners in defence with his aggression, and can play as centre-back too. Having Lucas Hernandez in the centre would require someone to occupy his left-back position. Filipe Luis is linked to Barcelona and doesn’t seem to be a starter anymore. El Cholo has already thought about it, having purchased Jonny Otto before loaning him to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Stefan Savic’s grip has loosed on his place in the starting XI. A veritable tower at 1.86m, injuries have disrupted his career. He has only managed 14 league games this season, but has provided two assists. At his 28 years he is more a back-up player than a real starter, despite having been one of the top defenders in Serie A four season earlier.
However we must not rely on these facts to crush his reputation. He is clinical at dribbling (9/9 succesful attempts), and is not a risk-taker with 83% successful passes. He’s already made 52 clearances and 17 interceptions according to opta.com.
La Liga options
There aren’t a lot of promising defenders in La Liga. However there are two options that could interest Atletico’s board. Yeray Alvarez at Athletic Bilbao is one, having so far enjoyed a solid season individually. The 24-year-old centre-back has featured this season alongside the Spanish international Inigo Martinez, playing 20 games and averaging 2.3 interceptions and 1.3 tackle per game.
Although he shows a kamikaze attitude at times, he doesn’t hesitate to block shots, making 0.6 per game. However, as Ateltico’s defensive leader Godin averages 4.3 clearances per game. What we expect more from a defender is his solidity: a tough guy in a tough team.
Real Valladolid’s Fernando Calero is not a famous name. He doesn’t spring to mind when you talk about playing from the back, but he has some particularities that could interest a tough coach like Diego Simeone. Already Calero has racked up 849 accurate passes (86%), 5/5 successful dribbles, three key passes, 116 clearances, and 37 interceptions in 23 games with Valladolid. When you notice that last season he was in Segunda Division with the B-team, the 23-year-old defender can offer further services if he keeps developing at this rate.
The external options
During his reign, with the exception of Stefan Savic and Sime Vrsalijko, Diego Simeone has invariably opted for Latin American defenders. He’s brought in the likes of Joao Miranda, Jose Maria Gimenez, Luis Filipe and Santiago Arias, while even Lucas Hernandez, like Antoine Griezmann, is almost more Uruguayan than French. The World Cup winners always walk with their mate, a South American drink popular in Argentina and Uruguay. Here are our choices from beyond Spanish soil.
Eder Militao (FC Porto)
The 21-year-old defender has been linked with a move from his current club, FC Porto, to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in the summer of 2019. Militao has the ability to play both as a centre-back and a right-back and has proven himself to be a visionary player who is not afraid to be a physical force. In theory he could operate as right-back when Juanfran retire. He is as skilled at reading and creating passes as a midfielder, and has a big enough physical frame to routinely intercept the ball and block attacking threats.
Konstantinos Manolas (AS Roma)
The Greek is more than ever the key element of AS Roma’s defence. This season he has made 21 appearances in Serie A, scoring once and providing an assist. At 27-years-old, the Roman has shown the world he can transcend himself when it’s necessary.
He was on the front page of newspapers after scoring the famous third goal of the ‘Romatada’ in the Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona at the Olimpico. Standing 1.89m tall, he wins on average 2.6 aerial duels per game. He doesn’t not dive into tackles but loves defending, and is more efficient at passing than Godin with around 87.9% accurate passes. In Roma’s last Serie A game against Empoli, he was the most accurate passer (92%) to play 45 minutes or more.
Kalidou Koulibaly (SSC Napoli)
His defensive success would be enough for a big club to take a chance on him. He is not a single-minded defender. His passing and on-the-ball skill are just as good as, if not better than, his defensive reactions and physicality. He completes 69 passes per 90 minutes, 1.09 successful tackles on top of 1.22 interceptions per game. A world-class defender in the air, he instills confidence with his 4.42 successful duels won on average. He has already provided two assists and contributed to eight clean sheets.
Pressure on the ball carrier is a commonality in high-level Italian and European matches. The Napoli number 27 passes these tests with flying colours though. He can galvanise those around him and at his age still has plenty in the tank, as Kylian Mbappé can testify, making him a dream target for everyone, even if he would cost an eye-watering €110 million release clause. The highest transfer registered by Diego Simeone and the club is €75 million paid for Thomas Lemar last summer, whereas all defenders he has now came cheaply.
Overall, the loss of Diego Godin will be a massive one for Atleti, who have had their struggles this season in La Liga despite a relatively positive second place. Given how he has contributed huge amounts to the recent history of the club, replacing him could be difficult. However it may be best for Cholo not to look for a direct replacement, but someone who can have a similar impact: someone who has cojones.
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