This season marks the introduction of a new generation of Atletico Madrid, with the departure of three legendary defenders from the domestic title-winning side in 2013/14, as well as top-class players like Antoine Griezmann and Rodri Hernandez. The whole team had to be rebuilt, and a quality centre-back was chosen to replace captain Diego Godin. His name is Mario Hermoso, a youth product of Atleti’s city rival Real Madrid.
Hermoso spent 10 years in Real Madrid’s youth system. Then from 2014 to 2017, he played for the team’s reserve side, with one year loaned to Valladolid. Unable to compete for a spot in the main team with the likes of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, Hermoso was moved to Espanyol. He gradually became one of the top centre-backs in La Liga, with rumours circulating interest from big clubs such as Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid(!). However, Atletico Madrid was the side to actually snatch him this summer.
Style of play
These are Hermoso’s characteristics, according to Whoscored. Hermoso is a threat from indirect set-piece: he scored three goals last season. To demonstrate his other styles shown here, he played 6.26 long balls per 90, attempted 1.2 tackles per game, and made 3.66 clearances per 90.
Hermoso’s on-ball abilities
This analysis will compare the last-season stats of Atletico’s best centre-back options for the 2019/20 season:
To sum up, Hermoso is the best in terms of passes per game, pass accuracy, through passes per game, xA, passes to box, received passes, forward passes, back passes, the second assist passes to box, back passes accuracy. He is second best in long passes per game, assist rate, passes to final third, through ball accuracy, and cross accuracy.
One problem with these statistics is that Hermoso’s overall pass accuracy is the highest, but he is not the best in any specific pass type (on these tables) accuracy, except for back passes. The statistics here probably followed Simpson’s paradox – meaning Hermoso’s overall accuracy statistics is the highest, though he’s not the most accurate passer in most types of passes, those that make up the overall stats. One thing is for sure: He’s not afraid to progress the ball forward and attempt incisive passes.
Gimenez is the worst passer, both in terms of the number of attempts and accuracy. That is partly due to Atleti’s playstyle: They don’t rely much on centre-backs in the build-up phase, and they use more long balls. Rubi’s Espanyol however, likes to build from the back. As expected, Hermoso contributes a lot to the team’s ball progression and often stays in the left half-space. The large distance between Espanyol’s centre-backs here made it difficult for the opponent to press. As Atleti tries to play a more possession-based game, this can be a familiar routine for them. And Hermoso is already proficient with this style of build-up.
Hermoso is skilled at sending long balls to the wide players, often with cross-field passes. Here, Hermoso stayed in the left half-space and launched a long diagonal ball to the space behind the opponent’s defence. These types of passes often leave the opponent unprepared for Espanyol’s sudden attack.
According to Whoscored, he registered 0.1 key passes per game last season. That’s not too impressive, but he is a centre-back after all. However, there were instances where he showed his quick vision and passing ability. In the below example, he perfectly controlled the loose ball from a clearance and instantly curled a long through ball to his onrushing teammate.
Hermoso is also capable of line-breaking passes. Line-breaking passes are very penetrative as it helps to progress the ball through an opponent’s line of defence, leaving the ball receiver in space (between lines) to quickly launch the attack.
Here, the red passing lane is covered by the circled player. Hermoso combined one-twos with the defensive midfielder so that the circled player is attracted to that midfielder.
Hermoso then progressed the ball through the narrow red passing lane – the pass power and direction had to be perfect.
Hermoso is composed and can control the ball skillfully. In the below example, he took on the on-rushing opponent with a delicate sombrero flick over the opponents’ head and then volleyed the ball expertly.
Hermoso was the best in terms of interceptions, ball losses, opp. half recovery %, blocked shots, fouls and yellow cards. He was 2nd best in successful sliding tackles % and clearances.
He is not a physical defender – his duels (especially aerials) win rate is not high. He likes to read the situation and be at the right place to intercept or block the ball. He doesn’t rush into challenges. When he does go in for a tackle, he often succeeds. He can effectively provide cover for Gimenez or Felipe, who are more of the “stopper” defenders. On the other hand, Felipe and Gimenez’s physicality can complement Hermoso’s game-reading style of defending.
Positioning and body orientation
Here is an example of his quality positioning and situation reading. His positioning prevented a cross into the six-yard box, so Real’s winger had no choice but to send a low cross onto Benzema. However, Hermoso’s body already leaned toward the cross’ direction, and he easily intercepted the cross. He then quickly played an accurate long ball to the wing. In this example, he effectively left the opponent with no dangerous crossing option with his positioning and body orientation.
Here, Hermoso gradually stepped back and maintained distance with the ball carrier while always looking at the ball. His body oriented towards the opponent’s left-winger as no one followed him. With his positioning, he could also handle the situation if the ball carrier passes to the right-winger. In reality, he passed to the left-winger, and Hermoso easily intercepted the pass.
Awareness and cover
In the example below, a long ball was launched over the head of Espanyol’s left-back. Hermoso quickly anticipated that and provided cover. Despite being further away from the ball than Barca’s winger, Hermoso got to the ball first with his impressive pace.
What will Hermoso add to Simeone’s tactics?
As Koke said in the pre-season, Simeone has been trying to play a 4-3-3, hinting at a more possession-based, attacking brand of football. Atletico’s record signing Joao Felix will be given permission to roam, with the support and space creation of the tireless offensive full-backs in Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier. The centre-backs, thus, will need to take care of the large space behind the full-backs more – that’s where Hermoso’s reading of the game and positioning will help him provide cover, which will be absolutely crucial to the balance of the team.
As mentioned earlier, Hermoso will be a great compliment to the more physical and aggressive likes of Felipe and Gimenez. His passing range, composure and creativity will help his side in the build-up phase as well as the attacking phase.
This analysis has characterized Hermoso’s quality, and what he might bring to his new side. A quality passer and a keen reader of the game, he is expected to be Simeone’s top choice for the centre-back position. He has the potential to be a symbol of Simeone’s new tactics. It is definitely interesting to watch how Atleti plays this season.
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