Atletico Madrid have been busy boosting their attacking options in the close season, with the signing of Nico Gaitan a statement of intent about having more goalscoring and chance-creation options in the side for 2016-17.
Gaitan's arrival is interesting not just in an offensive-minded technical way, but also because it is likely to impact the role that one of Atletico's most important players operates in: Koke, manager Diego Simeone's No. 6 and a homegrown star who has played a big part in the team's sustained challenge for trophies in recent years.
Koke has played entirely across the midfield line for Atleti and, even though he was well below his best for the first half of 15-16, showed once again his capacity to influence matches as he rediscovered form after the turn of the year. Koke ended the season as the third-highest assist provider in La Liga (14) and was seventh in chances created, per WhoScored.com.
The role he plays in the Atletico team is a vital one both for his movement and his technical ability, as well as having the work rate and aggression that Simeone demands as standard.
In from out
For much of his time in the Atletico side, Koke has played from a left midfield starting position in Simeone's 4-4-2 approach.
As far removed from a winger as he could possibly be, Koke's game instead is based on finding spaces between opposing right-sided players, receiving possession either from the full-back or central midfielders and quickly moving—either with good footwork to evade a defender or else with a one-touch pass on an angle to set Atletico on the attack.
His combination play is extremely good in tight areas, which is great for Atleti, who tend to press in twos and threes then fast-play their way onto a counter-attack once possession is won, but almost always Koke will be looking to run or pass infield. Atleti don't rely on pace and crossing ability to fill width, though naturally they will utilise those traits when available, but they instead use the wide areas of the pitch to open up defences and make runs off the ball from.
Koke drifts infield, plays passes centrally and will always look to see if a striker is making a run beyond the defence into the box, which will often see him curl a cross from deep into the area.
It's also worth noting his set-piece delivery can be excellent, both on free-kicks and corners, and when Atletico are either dominating matches or looking for a goal late on, he isn't afraid to attack the box himself in open play.
The back end of last season saw Koke playing more often in central areas—the role he has long been expected to move to and take the team to another level from on account of his creativity and incisive ability to pass the ball from deep.
The last three months of 15-16 saw striker Fernando Torres excel and fire the team toward trophy fights on two fronts—and much of it was thanks to his link-up with Koke. The midfielder was quick to play passes between the lines, setting Torres running into the channels or the edge of the penalty box, but then would also follow up his initial pass by being the late extra man arriving into the area. They set each other up for goals more than once in that period, as Koke really hit top gear.
From the middle, Koke will be available to take possession from every area of the team, being as comfortable and mobile on the ball outside his own box, in the middle third or outside the opposition area.
Atletico's usual tactical system means both central midfield players are box-to-box by definition, even if they approach the role in different ways. Koke is far more of a playmaker than Augusto Fernandez is, for example, but all have the energy, stamina and physical prowess to do their jobs in both halves of the field.
While 4-4-2 might be the gold standard of the Simeone years, last season showed the Argentinian manager moving ever closer toward adopting 4-3-3 as Atletico's go-to formation. In most fixtures over the course of the campaign, it was clear to see in-game switches by Simeone, pulling Antoine Griezmann wide out of the front line and tucking in one wide midfielder to create three in the centre instead.
The versatility of two or three midfielders is key in the head coach's ability to do this, with Koke one of them, and Saul another.
In the space of one transition, Atleti can go from attacking with two strikers and four in the second line, to narrowing the midfield area considerably with Koke often the one tucking in from the channel. With Griezmann then tracking back on one flank, it immediately makes the five across, which makes Atletico hard to break down, difficult to pass through and arguably even more of a threat on the counter.
Koke and his fellow midfielders are extremely aggressive in the challenge when they deem the time right to stop simply holding their positions. A constant tilting of the midfield balance will force teams to go wide, play back, switch play to the opposite flank and repeat—but when the chance comes up to tackle, Koke will be one of the first to make the move.
The well-drilled lineup knows, then, that they can quickly flood forward once possession is won, giving Koke his first out ball to change the direction of play. From the pressure trigger, he immediately turns creator and exploiter of space.
After the debacle of the 2014 World Cup, where Spain crashed out in Brazil in the group stage, Koke was one of those tipped to signal a period of change, with Xavi and Xabi Alonso moving out of the regular lineup.
He certainly has impacted on the team and played his part in qualification for Euro 2016, but he didn't guarantee himself a starting spot for the tournament proper under Vicente del Bosque—as evidenced by only being a substitute.
With the veteran boss now departing, a change in tactics and possibly personnel to an extent is likely for the national team and, if Koke starts 2016-17 the way he finished 15-16, there's a high probability he will be one of the midfielders who comes into the regular thinking, along with Thiago Alcantara.
Perhaps the only real issue holding him back even until now is not playing centrally with regularity for Atletico until the turn of the year, but playing wide has never stopped or hindered Koke's actual production in central areas.
He'll be vital to the team again next campaign on account of his technical ability and his tactical appreciation of how the manger wants the side to play, and Atletico know they have a top-drawer player at their disposal who is extremely unlikely to go looking for a transfer any time soon and depart the Vicente Calderon.