Why Koke Will Be Atletico Madrid's X-Factor in La Liga This Season

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2014

MADRID, SPAIN - AUGUST 30:  Koke of Atletico de Madrid conrols the ball during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and SD Eibar at Vicente Calderon Stadium on August 30, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

To single out one of Diego Simeone's loyal Atletico Madrid soldiers feels alarmingly wrong. In doing so, there's a sense that you're committing sacrilege, that you're ignoring the collective beauty of the robust Atleti machine.

Whereas Barcelona are majestic and Real Madrid are explosive, Simeone's men engage in football's equivalent of trench warfare, slugging it out in an almost brutal fashion while embodying their manager's ferocity. 

In such an environment, room for individual acclaim is scarce at the Vicente Calderon. It's what is achieved together that counts. And it's that mentality that has endeared Los Colchoneros to not only their immediate fans, but countless other observers across Europe, too. 

But as Atletico embark on what is shaping to be another remarkable season, it's becoming increasingly difficult not to single out the 22-year-old Koke in Simeone's midfield.

Tellingly, we're not the only ones who have. 

Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

"Koke is an extraordinary footballer," said Barcelona and Spain great Xavi back in March, per The Independent.

"He has everything: talent, physical ability, he is a footballer of the present and the future. He has been marked out as the conductor of Spain's orchestra for the next 10 years."

If any man is qualified to make such a judgment, it's Xavi—perhaps the finest midfielder of his generation. Praise simply doesn't come any higher. 

Those who've watched Atletico closely in recent seasons, of course, will have watched Koke ply his trade on the left and right sides of midfield. Denied of the team's most prominent central position, the precocious Spaniard has been moulded into a relentless two-way player on the flanks, impressing many even when forced to take on an adjusted role to one he prefers in the middle. 

MADRID, SPAIN - AUGUST 19:  Koke of Club Atletico de Madrid gets the better of Daniel Carvajal of Real Madrid during the Supercopa first leg match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid     at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on August 19, 2014 in Madri
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

The learning curve has been steep for Koke. So much so that Simeone has already shown signs this season that he's willing to hand the midfield reins to the Madrid-born star in 2014-15 and beyond. 

In the derby against Real Madrid last weekend, the Argentinian replaced Gabi with Arda Turan in the second half with the score locked at 1-1, shifting Koke into a deep central midfield position to control his side's forays forward, as noted by Dermot Corrigan for WhoScored.com

"Koke's presence in the midfield balanced us more in the game," Simeone said of the move. "That allowed us to start having the possibility of the full-backs attacking more evenly."

Essentially, the switch gave Atletico more fluidity and possession in midfield with the supremely talented Koke on the ball far more regularly. The end result was a famous 2-1 victory. 

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JUNE 18: Koke of Spain controls the ball during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group B match between Spain and Chile at Maracana on June 18, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In shifting the Spaniard more centrally, Simeone gave a glimpse into what lies ahead for his midfield, somewhat mimicking Vicente del Bosque's use of Koke in Spain's recent clash with France. 

On that evening in Paris, the former Real Madrid manager utilised the Atletico star as the team's central hub, seeing Koke complete 123 touches compared to Sergio Busquets' 58, Cesc Fabregas' 73 and Santi Cazorla's 66. 

Watching on from afar, Xavi would have felt vindicated in his belief that Koke would be his successor. Publicly, Del Bosque reaffirmed it for him.

"Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso are part of history. The new, as in the case of Koke, will sustain our midfield," the Spain manager said in the days after the clash with France, per Football Espana

MADRID, SPAIN - JUNE 02:  Koke and Xabi Alonso of Spain in action during a training session at Ciudad del Futbol on June 2, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

For Atletico, Koke's gradual move to the centre of Simeone's midfield is not only deserved, but also necessary.

With Diego Costa spearheading the attack last term, Los Colchoneros could afford to sit deep, stay tight and concede possession, safe in the knowledge that their capacity on the break and in any resulting set pieces was devastating. 

Costa, of course, was a one-man counter-attack, capable of hauling his team out of defence and up the pitch on his own, negating the need for central midfielders to control the game's tempo. 

But in the striker's absence, and having sought the less mobile Mario Mandzukic as a replacement, Atleti must change their style to sustain their excellence. 

Koke stands at the heart of that requisite shift. 

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

As Simeone looks to mastermind a title defence, the Argentinian will have recognised his team no longer has the explosive outlet of last season—that greater control of the game's flow will be needed to offset that loss, that Atleti will have to look to edge the possession battle more regularly this time than last. 

Despite the almost immovable shield they provide, the likes of Gabi, Tiago and Mario Suarez can't aid that cause. Fine tacklers, interceptors and ball winners they may be, but Simeone's anchors can't facilitate the modification of the side's central approach that will be needed to keep Atletico at the top. 

Once shifted into the middle, Koke can. The most natural playmaker in the squad, the Spaniard's rare passing range and ball-retention skills are what Simeone needs in order to mould the team's methods to cater for a new-look attack.

With Koke sitting centrally, Atleti have a greater opportunity to dictate the game's path.

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 09:  Koke of Club Atletico de Madrid celebrates scoring the opening goal with David Villa of Club Atletico de Madrid  during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final second leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Barcelona at
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

There will also be a number of positive bi-products of such a move: Turan's influence further ahead will increase, Raul Garcia will be afforded more opportunities to float forward, the full-backs can push on, Mandzukic can do what he does best rather than attempting to mimic Costa and Antoine Griezmann can concentrate on being the goal-scoring forward he is, instead of a midfielder relying on counter-attacks. 

While that influence may seem exaggerated, Barcelona's summer pursuit of the Atletico star suggested the Catalan giants saw the same qualities. 

"It's not easy to say no to Barca and their interest was appreciated. It means the work I’ve done has paid off. But I’m at home here," Koke told AS (as relayed by Goal) when asked of the speculation. 

Such loyalty will only enhance his reputation at Atleti. As will his ongoing humility despite a rapidly growing reputation. 

"I'm just another player at Atletico, a player who gives everything for his team and does what Simeone asks. I’m not the best or the flagship, the banner. The most important thing to me is to make a better Atletico and be a team player, which is ultimately what matters."

The manager's mentality clearly resonates with Koke. But some of those words will soon be wildly inaccurate—in time he will be the best, the flagship, the banner.

A permanent switch to central midfield could even see that ascension completed by season's end. And that's exactly why Koke is Atletico Madrid's X-factor. 

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