After a tough return season to Division 1, Atlético are preparing for an even bigger challenge as they place the fate of their team in the hands of a new, young core of the squad.
A new attacking front four of Felipe Anderson, Douglas Costa, James Rodriguez and Mario Mandzukic has helped ease the pain of the departures of Jorge Koke and Mauro Icardi. However, these 4 aren’t who Earle is placing the future of the club on. Instead there are 7 players that Earle is expecting to step up and take the club forward into its new era. These players are Gianluigi Donnarumma, Matthijs De Ligt, Dayot Upamecano, Clement Lenglet, Nicolo Barella, Rodrigo Bentancur and Maxi Gomez.
Having already spent 3 full seasons at Atlético, Gianluigi Donnarumma has established himself as one of the clubs most reliable players. Due to this, he has been named the club captain for the forthcoming season.
Aged just 20, Donnarumma is already on of the top keepers around and averaged a rating of 6.74 last season for Atlético. He has also made 43 appearances for Italy, helping them to the semi-final of the Australian World Cup.
In front of Donnarumma will be one of the toughest fights in the squad. Having signed Matthijs De Ligt from Arsenal, fans thought that he and Dayot Upamecano would be the two starting centre backs for the upcoming season. However, a shock move for Clement Lenglet means that the spots are far from safe. It is likely that the 23-year-old will be a starter due to Earle preferring a left footed player at the left-centre back position. Lenglet arrived at the Spanish capital from Roma and, despite being only 23, is the most senior centre back option in the squad. Although he is the oldest option, Earle believes that Lenglet could be a key member in the squad as they move forward as he can offer guidance to De Ligt, 19, and Upamecano, 20. With that said, the two youths are also being touted as two of the clubs most promising players. Despite their age, both will be expecting to be first team regulars, but with Lenglet likely to start, only one of the others can take a spot. Upamecano arrived early last season but left a lot to be desired from his performances. The Frenchman has attracted interest from other clubs during the pre season but Earle rejected these approaches as he believes the 20-year-old will be able to improve this season and play a major role in the clubs development. With both Lenglet and Upamecano being French, there is potential that a very strong partnership could be formed between the duo. In the way of that partnership stands Matthijs De Ligt. Signed in a mammoth deal from Arsenal at the end of last season, De Ligt was also far from impressive in his 12 games. An average of 6.08 was poor and 2 red cards meant he missed some games and that he will be unavailable for the opening game of the season. But that didn’t stop Earle from calling him the highest potential player in the squad. At just 19, De Ligt offers a solid and trustworthy option at the back and is expected to be selected ahead of Upamecano once available. However, all 3 offer world class potential and will be expected to produce top performances this season.
The midfield will also be controlled by a new partnership this season. After starting last season as back up to Roberto Gagliardini and Luis Pizzi, Rodrigo Bentancur will now be the first choice in the centre of the pitch. The Uruguayan started 15 games last season and made a further 12 appearances off the bench. The 21-year-old has shown steady improvement since arriving from Manchester City and is now expected to control the game for Atlético. He has previously been called “a star in the making” by Earle who has made it clear that he is not available to leave for any price. Bentancur has already proven himself an important member of the Uruguay international team, making 15 appearances already. Next to him in midfield will be new arrival Nicolo Barella. Joining as part of the sale of Jorge Koke, there is a lot of expectation on the Italian. Barella made 3 appearances at the end of last season but couldn’t display much of his true talent due to the struggle of the team as they closed out the season. However, moving forward, Earle expects that the 22-year-old will become one of the stars of the team and will hope that Barella can repay the faith shown in him over the coming season.
With the loss of Mauro Icardi, many fans were left wondering who could step in up front. For the short term that responsibility falls to Mario Mandzukic. However, the longer term choice will be Maxi Gomez who is waiting to arrive from Juventus. The Uruguayan forward has spent the last 4 seasons developing at Zagreb. During that time he started 81 games netting 33 goals and assisting 13 more. This form earned him a move to Juventus who loaned him back to Zagreb to finish the season. Gomez is set to join Atlético at the end of April but will join Monaco on loan until then. Depending on his form, Earle has said he will not be shy to throw the 22-year-old into the starting line up, pushing Mandzukic onto the wing and Anderson onto the bench.
While these 7 offer first team options, the squad is bursting with young talent waiting for their opportunities to impress. It is expected that Noussair Mazraoui will be given game time at right back in cup games after showing promising signs in the youth tournament last season. Lukas Klostermann will also expect to pick up game time after impressing Earle in his 9 appearances last season. New signing Mario Hermoso will also put pressure on the centre back options after arriving from Fenerbahce. Youth options in the midfield are also impressive with Arne Maier and Amadou Haidara eager to develop in the youth cup. The same cannot be said for Florian Neuhaus or James Maddison who will need to rely on cup competitions for game time now that they are senior squad members, Earle has said that both could be used or may be available for loan. Goncalo Guedes will also be keen to improve on last season after he managed just 1 goal and 1 assist in the league in a total of 37 appearances. Looking further down the youth squad there is a huge amount of potential ready to prove itself, all the way down to the teams youngest player Naci Unuvar. Aged just 15, Unuvar attracted interest from over 25 teams but opted to join Atlético due to the clubs new focus on youth.