This season saw a lot of changes in the Atletico Madrid squad. Besides the departure of key players Antoine Griezmann and Rodri, three of the everpresent defenders in the Diego Simeone era bid farewell to the club. Replacing the legendary Diego Godin is by no means a simple task. This season, two new centre-backs have been signed: Mario Hermoso from Espanyol, and Felipe Monteiro from Porto. Both were solid last season for their respected clubs, and are expected to perform.
Felipe started his professional career rather late, at the age of 20. He spent two seasons at Uniao Mogi and four years with a complex mix of spells at Bragantino, Coimbra MG and Corinthians. He then spent the last three seasons at Porto. On July 1st, 2019, his 20-million-Euro transfer to Atletico Madrid was completed.
Simeone’s use of centre-backs
Atleti’s defence was at its most chaotic last season. According to Statsbomb, Lucas Hernandez missed 26 games due to injury, Jose Gimenez missed 19, Stefan Savic missed 18, Filipe Luis missed 13, Diego Godin missed 10, and Juanfran missed 9. Injuries forced Simeone to improvise. He used a total of eight centre-backs throughout the season, including central midfielders Saul Niguez, Thomas Partey and Toni Moya. Atletico’s elite defensive system helped them hold things together, but centre-back is certainly a department they needed to improve on.
What does Simeone require of his centre-backs?
In the past, Simeone preferred defenders with outstanding defensive abilities, those who could consistently perform under pressure for the whole 90 minutes, and would do whatever they could to stop the ball from going into the net. These defenders are meant for low-block defending, meaning they often launch long balls forwards instead of using short-build up, they are strong and good with headers. They excel in intercepting passes due to their excellent positioning and reading of the game. Last but not least, they are great at tackling and ball-blocking.
Those have always been the attributes required of Simeone’s centre-backs. However, he has signed two capable passers in Felipe and Hermoso. This indicates Atletico will now look to control more of the ball, and centre-backs with excellent passing skills are an important part of this new tactics.
Style of play
As concluded by Whoscored, Felipe is a notable threat from indirect set-pieces, meaning he is a dangerous target for crosses. Last season, he scored four goals. In the following example, he scored from a corner with a powerful header.
Looking at his strengths, we see that he is indeed a very strong header of the ball. He’s a reliable passer and rarely makes serious errors. These qualities are definitely what Simeone requires of a centre-back. Felipe’s passing ability will be a good complement for Simeone’s new style, one geared towards more possession and passing. Since the 2014/15 season, their attacking play has always been sluggish, and a capable passer from deep can provide the team with another option.
His defensive stats are quite impressive, with 3.17 clearances and 5.74 interceptions per 90. He is often ready to strongly challenge the opposition player, committing 1.08 fouls per match. However, he only attempts 0.12 sliding tackles per 90. He is very active in engaging in duels, winning 9.54 duels per game, as well as coming out on top in 4.23 aerial battles.
While evaluating a defender, it is necessary that we look at his seasonal statistics. However, a player’s stats only become meaningful when you compare them with others’. In this article, we will look at Felipe’s 2018/19 statistics and compare them with those of Mario Hermoso and Jose Gimenez, Atletico’s two high-quality centre-backs for the coming 2019/20 season. This comparison will provide insights into Felipe’s relative strengths and weaknesses, and what can he add to Simeone’s side.
Felipe is the best in ball recoveries and number of aerial duels. He is second best in aerial duels won, number of defensive duels and defensive duels won. He rarely attempts sliding tackles, and he’s quite weak in this department.
Below is an example of his quality in aerials. The Roma keeper launched the ball towards Dzeko, a very strong header. Felipe quickly came from behind and jumped higher than Dzeko to head the ball away.
In short, he’s familiar with getting into a lot of duels. He is expected to win an impressive number of duels, especially aerial ones. He wins back possession a lot, which would certainly help Atleti’s possession play.
Here, the ball was about to get to the point circled in red. As the Sporting player slowly walked towards the ball, Felipe anticipated the pass and rushed ahead of the defender to challenge for the ball. His tackle sent the ball to the teammate right in front of him, and Porto had a counterattacking opportunity. This is a demonstration of his reading of the game and an ability to start the counter after getting the ball back.
When Porto attacks with the full-backs pushed high, Felipe (as a right centre-back) often moves to the right wing to cover. This helps minimize the spaces behind the full-backs that the opposition winger can exploit. If Atleti plays a more attacking brand of football next season, this positioning and cover ability can be crucial.
Here, Porto is facing a counter-attack. Felipe positioned himself like a right-back to close down the opponent’s left winger. As the opponent tried to sprint pass Felipe, the centre-back got close to him and use his body strength to take control of the ball.
Once again, we will compare the passing stats of Felipe, Gimenez and Hermoso to identify Felipe’s strengths in his passing game.
From these tables, we can conclude: Felipe plays the most long balls. He is the best through ball passer of the three. He is the most prolific passer to the final third, with impressive accuracy. He attempts a lot of forward passes, with the best accuracy. He has the best assist rate, while his passing adds more value to the team’s build-up and attacking phase than the other two.
The most notable problem with his passing is the low quality of his crosses (0% accuracy!). A centre-back is not expected to swing crosses in anyway.
What Felipe lacks in defensive attributes, he makes up for in his passing game. Gimenez is definitely the worse passer of the three, although he was the ball-playing defender in his Atletico side last season. Simeone appears to desire centre-backs with great passing ability these days. If he wanted someone with ultra-solid defensive skills, he would have looked elsewhere.
Felipe can definitely improve Atletico’s build-up and ball progression. His most notable pass is a long ball to the flanks, as demonstrated in the picture below.
We now know he is a reliable long passer. When Atleti has trouble with their attacking phase, unable to break down a low block, Felipe can provide a sudden but accurate switching pass to the other flank to disrupt the opposition’s system.
Occasionally, he can provide quality long through balls. Here, he quickly spotted the gap between the opponents’ left-back and centre-back and sent the ball into the open space for his onrushing teammate.
Felipe’s long passing statistics last season were even more impressive than that of Bonucci, who is a top ball-playing defender. Felipe attempted more long passes per game (6.67 > 5.7), with greater accuracy (57% > 46%)
It’s possible that Bonucci attempts more difficult long balls. However, Felipe’s long ball statistics are still outstanding.
This analysis has shown Felipe’s key qualities as well as his shortcomings. He is a decent ball-playing defender, and is expected to fit into Atletico’s new style and compete for a spot in the starting eleven. Atletico’s squad now has more depth and quality in the centre-back position. This can be a foundation for their success in the coming season.
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