Back on February 1, Atletico Madrid president Enrique Cerezo hailed Matt Doherty as “the first Irishman to play for Atletico Madrid”.
More than a month later, that has now actually happened.
The 31-year-old managed seven touches and completed three of five passes in his brief spell on the pitch but his evening was still a big positive, given he had been an unused substitute in the four Atletico games since a surprise loan move from Tottenham Hotspur in the final hours of the January transfer window.
However, Saturday’s events also showed Doherty’s place in the Atletico right-back pecking order. With first-choice Nahuel Molina suspended, coach Diego Simeone preferred to start midfielder Marcos Llorente in the position — and he fitted in well, playing a role in three of his team’s goals.
After the final whistle, Doherty stayed on the pitch with his new team-mates to salute fans cheering Simeone’s record 613th game as Atletico’s coach, passing the previous mark set by his mentor and fellow club legend Luis Aragones.
It was a memorable moment, but it remains to be seen how many more games he will play over the remainder of the campaign.
New Atletico signings have often taken a while to get used to Simeone’s extreme physical and tactical demands.
Even players who end up settling well, such as Antoine Griezmann, can take months to get regular playing time. Some never convince the coach known as ‘El Cholo’ at all, with Lucas Torreira, Mario Mandzukic and Joao Felix just some of many players who have not fitted in for various reasons during his 11 years in charge.
Doherty’s move to Atletico came as a surprise to everyone involved, including the player himself, as The Athletic reported at the time. The deal came about very late in the winter window, when Atletico were looking to add a defender after Felipe moved to England with Nottingham Forest, and was facilitated by Doherty’s agent Jorge Mendes’ close links with the Atletico hierarchy.
The Dubliner quickly came around to the idea of joining a team he had publicly admired from afar for some years. He made a positive impression on Atletico fans and reporters at his presentation at the Metropolitano, at which he was asked if he had spoken with his new boss yet.
“Simeone does not speak much English, but my message is that I am here, I am strong and ready to play on the right, on the left, in the centre…” Doherty replied. “He knows I am coming to work as hard as possible, for him and for the team.”
— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) March 5, 2023
That was the right message to send, but it needed to be received.
Simeone was not closely involved in identifying Doherty, and did not feel a new right-back was much of a priority. He had pushed hard to sign fellow Argentinian Molina from Udinese of Italy last summer for the position, and the World Cup 2022 winner has overcome a rocky start to become a fixture in the starting XI, whether at right-back in a 4-4-2 or a wing-back on that flank in a 3-5-2.
So Doherty remained rooted to the bench — not even sent out to warm up in any of the first four games after his arrival.
Molina’s excellent form since becoming a world champion in December is a big reason for that, but not the only one.
Atletico are out of the Copa del Rey and Europe, so their sole focus is now sealing Champions League qualification by finishing in La Liga’s top four, with no need for rotation or management of minutes across different competitions.
Players who join Atletico are often shocked by the relentless intensity of the sessions organised by physical trainer Oscar Ortega — nicknamed ‘El Profe’ (The Teacher). Doherty accepted criticism of his fitness from his Tottenham head coach Antonio Conte earlier this season, and succeeded in working his way back into the Italian’s plans.
Still, it has been suggested around Atletico that he has still to reach the levels which Simeone requires.
There is also the tactical message to get across.
Simeone did do a lot of personal work with Kieran Trippier when he arrived from Spurs in July 2019, showing the England international exactly to the centimetre where he needed to be positioned when Atletico were defending in different game situations.
But Trippier had a full pre-season with the team to get used to what he was being asked to do. He was also the only real option for right-back at that time. So an investment was made, and it paid off, with Trippier a key player in the Atletico team that won the 2020-21 title.
There is less need to invest as much time and energy into bringing Doherty up to speed on how Atletico defend, given he is only under contract with them until June. And there is more of a risk in putting him into the team when he does not yet know all that is expected of him.
Another complication is that issues around recruitment have led to a cooling in the relationship between Simeone and Atletico chief executive Miguel Angel Gil Marin. Indeed, some around the team wonder if Doherty, who is so obviously a ‘club’ signing, might be getting caught in the crossfire of political battles so serious that they are central to the uncertainty over the coach’s future at Atletico.
There are parallels with the case of Sergio Reguilon, another Tottenham player Simeone did not ask for and has barely been used. Reguilon has played just 98 minutes in total across five appearances in all competitions since his unexpected arrival on loan at the end of last summer’s transfer window.
So few at Atletico expected Doherty to go straight into the team on arrival. But Molina’s fifth yellow card of the season in last weekend’s derby draw across town at Real Madrid meant a suspension that opened up a place in the XI for the visit of Sevilla.
“Doherty’s hour has come,” said a headline in local daily newspaper AS, pointing to it being “logical” for the Irishman to finally get his first minutes in an Atletico shirt, especially as Llorente had been substituted at the Bernabeu with an apparent thigh problem.
Atletico’s social media team played along on Monday, with a tweet showing the 33-cap Republic of Ireland international at training.
Loading 🔥 pic.twitter.com/g4zAR7jsIT
— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) February 27, 2023
And he was given run-outs in the likely XI in sessions during the week at their training ground at Majadahonda, in Madrid’s western suburbs, as Simeone tried out different line-ups as he prepared specifically for facing Sevilla. He was, though, rotated in the position with Llorente, who quickly cleared tests to return to full training.
At Friday’s pre-game press conference, Simeone was asked whether Doherty’s time really had arrived. “He is working very well,” he replied. “Getting better since he got here. He could play tomorrow. If he gets a chance to play, even for a while, he will do well.” But there was still little surprise when Doherty was named on the bench again the following day, with Llorente in the wing-back position he has often admitted he does not really enjoy playing.
The versatile Spain international filled the role well when the game began, however, winning back possession and then making one of his characteristic lung-bursting runs forward (past an Irish flag hung from the first row of seats) to set up Memphis Depay’s second goal of the game to make it 2-0 on 26 minutes. He was also involved in Atletico’s third and fourth goals, scored by Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco.
Defensively, Llorente’s main intervention was being adjudged (harshly) to have tripped Pape Gueye, conceding a penalty that Ivan Rakitic missed.
Doherty had a nice view of Atletico racking up the goals from the spot near the corner flag where he spent more than half an hour warming up with Ortega. And after substitute Alvaro Morata made it 5-1 with 14 minutes left to play, Simeone finally judged it safe to send him on for that long-awaited debut. There was a decent cheer from the stands when his name was read out over the loudspeakers.
In a neat coincidence, he found himself marking recent Tottenham team-mate Bryan Gil, who is on loan at Sevilla. Although the game situation meant that neither player could make much impression.
Doherty has other reasons to be concerned about losing his match sharpness during this stint in Spain.
The Republic of Ireland begin their 2024 European Championship qualifying campaign at home to France on Monday, March 27. And it looks like the only full 90 minutes Doherty could get to prepare for facing Kylian Mbappe and his 2022 World Cup finalists would be a friendly against Latvia, also in Dublin, five days before.
“Matt’s situation was very unusual,” Ireland manager Stephen Kenny said this week. “The strong fitness regimen at Spurs suited him. He needs that. When you’re given the opportunity of joining Atletico, you grasp it. Matt needs games and we are hoping he gets games, because he has been very good for us and he is an important player.”
Doherty may not be the most clubbable of players, but he has strong inner self-belief and over his career for club and country has overcome challenges and periods out of favour with different managers.
Eric Dier and Matt Doherty – a Spurs bromance for the ages
“This is an opportunity to better myself, work with a world-class manager,” he said on arrival in Madrid, which was the last time he spoke publicly. “I will try to improve, and improve the team. I am coming for six months, but if I do well, we’ll see what happens then.”
Another strange quirk of the situation is that it was first planned for him to join Atletico on loan in January, but Tottenham already farmed out the maximum eight players permitted under FIFA rules. They therefore actually cancelled his contract to allow him to join the La Liga side on a permanent deal.
So as things stand Doherty will be a free agent in the summer — and unless something changes very radically, a longer stay at Atletico looks very unlikely.
Making his debut, in such a happy atmosphere at the Metropolitano, could be a step forward. But everyone expects Molina to be restored to the XI when Atletico travel to Girona for their next game in a week’s time, with the Irishman back on the bench.
(Top photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)