Mario Hermoso: The Highly Coveted Defender Available on a Free

It has been five years since Mario Hermoso departed Espanyol and returned to the Spanish capital, joining Atlético Madrid. Since then, he’s played a leading role in Atleti’s 2020/21 La Liga title, served as a versatile performer at center back and left back, and registered 10 goals and 6 assists in 168 appearances for the Rojiblancos. Today, however, he finds himself at a crossroads in his career.


Born and raised in the Spanish capital, Hermoso joined Real Madrid’s academy at the age of 10 following a three-year spell at local side EF Concepción. He worked his way up the youth ranks before joining Real Valladolid on a season-long loan, where he would make 31 appearances in Spain’s second tier, the vast majority coming at left back.



Upon returning from his loan, he shared a dressing room with the likes of Federico Valverde, Achraf Hakimi and Martin Ødegaard as Real Madrid Castilla finished 11th in the Segunda División B. Hermoso was a bright spot for Castilla in the heart of Santiago Solari’s defense, and after 12 years in Madrid’s academy, he joined Espanyol on a three-year contract.


Hermoso nailed down a starting spot on the left side of defense alongside David López, earning a maiden call-up to the Spanish national team on November 8, 2018 and impressing in the back four as Los Periquitos qualified for Europe for the first time in 13 years. His performances in Catalunya earned the attention of Atlético Madrid, who were searching for a replacement for the outgoing Lucas Hernandez following the Canterano’s departure to Bayern Munich.


Two years after arriving from Castilla for €400,000, Hermoso joined Atleti for €25 million plus €4 million in add-ons. Espanyol also retained 20% of any future sale of the player, with half of the fee being paid to Real Madrid. Devoid of Hermoso, Espanyol suffered a dismal 2019/20 campaign and finished bottom of the table, dropping to the Segunda for the first time in 27 years.


He failed to convince in his debut season for the Colchoneros, making just 19 starts under Simeone and committing high-profile errors against Bayer Leverkusen and Eibar. Rumors of a loan departure to Real Sociedad began to surface, but the Spanish international remained put at the Wanda Metropolitano, and it proved to be just what he needed to get his career back on track. 



After a difficult first season, Hermoso became a starter under Simeone in 2020/21, playing on the left side of the back three, providing a reliable passing option in the first phase of build-up, enabling Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco to push forward into attack, and demonstrating the same leadership qualities that saw him become a fan favorite at Espanyol. He proved vital as Atleti claimed a first league title in seven years, putting a temporary end to Barcelona and Real Madrid’s duopoly.


Not only is Hermoso capable of doing his due diligence in defense, but he’s an apt ball-playing defender whose versatility enables him to shift into a variety of positions. Indeed, whilst he has had a tough time erasing his reputation as a chaotic, error-prone defender, Hermoso is skilled at engineering attacking moves, marauding forward, switching the play and teeing up his teammate with a perfectly weighted pass.


There have been crests and troughs throughout Hermoso’s time in the capital. Like on September 18, 2022, when he pulled one back against Real Madrid in the 83rd minute to cut the deficit to 2-1, only to receive his marching orders shortly after. Or on February 6, 2022, when he was routinely torn apart by Barcelona’s Adama Traoré in a 4-2 defeat.


They began the 2022/23 campaign by losing a home opener for the first time in 16 years, falling to a 2-0 loss to Villarreal. A group of Atleti fans began to abuse Hermoso and Antoine Griezmann after the match, with Hermoso confronting them and being held back from further altercation. Overall, though, Hermoso has exemplified incredible resilience and managed to bounce back on several occasions.


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I spoke to Atleti fan @LaLigaMichael to get the lowdown on Hermoso’s time at Atleti: “He was slow to integrate at first because of a style misalignment before slowly becoming one of the key parts of Simeone’s style evolution. He was the sole progressor in the back half and often positioned as almost a deeper pivot on the left side. However, he always had a big lapse in him, which he’d often match with a clutch goal.”


“He’s great on the ball, good distribution and passing on the whole, but eventually, he became a casualty of Atleti’s lacking a defensive midfielder and mobile central midfielder. No real cover for his style of play, so back to being a good player in a less-than-ideal system. There’s no DM, they don’t have legs in midfield to press, the defense on the whole has been poor. It’s hard to say how much one individual in that defensive system has declined/dipped.”


Whether operating as a left back, a left back in a back three, an overlapping wingback or as an inverted fullback, he is skilled at driving forward and picking out passes with his stellar left foot. However, he still has room for improvement, particularly in the discipline department. He’s received bookings in nine matches this year, he’s given away needless penalties and has looked devoid of concentration at times, and he hasn’t always covered himself in glory in defensive scenarios.


Hermoso has been a valuable cog in defense as well as a leader in the dressing room for Atleti, but it appears his time in the capital may be running out. Whilst Atleti look set to finish in the top four and qualify for the UEFA Champions League after their 3-1 win against Athletic Club, with the Rojiblancos sitting six points above Athletic in fourth place, it cannot be denied that this has been a disappointing campaign for Simeone’s side.


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After a promising start, they have fallen by the wayside as Real Madrid, Girona and Barcelona push for the top three. They will finish the season trophyless for the third straight year, having lost to Athletic in the Copa del Rey semifinals, Real Madrid in the Supercopa de España semifinals, and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarterfinals. The defensive nous that once defined Atleti under Simeone has now dissipated into thin air.


They’ve kept just one clean sheet in their last 18 matches, and, having conceded at least one goal in their last 13 matches, they are currently suffering their longest clean sheet drought in a quarter-century. A reset is necessary, and it seems more than likely that Hermoso will not be part of that rebuild. Hermoso’s contract is set to expire in the summer, and it’s likely that he will part ways on a free transfer.


Inter, West Ham, Napoli and Aston Villa are just a handful of the clubs that have registered interest, and all signs point to him leaving Spain for the first time in his career. Atleti have cast their eyes on Valencia’s Cristhian Mosquera and Real Sociedad’s Robin Le Normand as they look to retool their backline, but first, they’ll need to free up space in their squad. Should Hermoso depart on a free, Espanyol would miss out on 20% of a potential transfer fee, whilst Real Madrid would miss out on 50%.


At 28 years of age, Mario Hermoso has already racked up an impressive amount of accolades. He’s honed his skills in La Fábrica, he’s cut his teeth in the second tier with Real Valladolid, he’s led Espanyol to their first European qualification in over a decade, and he’s helped to end a lengthy trophy drought at Atlético Madrid. Now, the five-time Spain international looks set for a new adventure outside of the Spanish capital — the only question is, where?


By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Quality Sport Images / Getty Images