News that Bayern Munich could pay the €80million buyout clause for Atlético Madrid’s World Cup-winning defender Lucas Hernández has highlighted the Spanish side’s weakened position due to salary limitations, which leave them exposed in the winter transfer market.
It is the transfer bombshell in Spain, delivered before the window had even opened. On December 19, Marca revealed Bayern were preparing to provide the cash for Lucas Hernández to pay his buyout clause, allowing them to sign the 22-year-old, who is having his most consistent season yet at Atlético Madrid where he is proving to be a key piece in a key season.
Few, if any, saw it coming. After winning the European Super Cup by defeating arch rivals Real Madrid (Lucas played 120 minutes in the win), Atleti have pushed on and are still in the three major competitions they are competing for this season. Through to the Round of 16 in the Copa del Rey, they are only three points behind Barcelona in La Liga with a match against the Catalans still to play. And though being drawn against Juventus in the Champions League is not ideal, their manager’s excellent track record against Italian opposition (Diego Simeone is unbeaten against Serie A sides as Atleti boss) provides cause for optimism that they can move a step closer towards the final, which will this year be held at their home ground.
Growing in importance, Lucas can expect to play in the majority of games in that three-pronged push for silverware, having already done so to date. Last year he played three Champions League matches before Atleti were unexpectedly eliminated in the group stage. This year he has already made five appearances, and only missed the final group game through injury. In La Liga, after 17 games, the Frenchman has made the same number of appearances as at the same stage in the 2017/18 season, but only because he has missed four matchdays through injury and suspension. If not, he would undoubtedly have played more.
The defender is among Atleti’s eight most-used outfield players of the 2018/19 season in terms of minutes, and has started the vast majority of games in his preferred centre-back position, as opposed to left-back where he largely filled in during previous years. The club has long considered him to be the prime candidate to partner José María Giménez at the heart of the defence in the post-Diego Godín era, and Lucas is now being given the chance to show he can do that job on a weekly basis.
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That a winter move to Bayern would be about progression on the pitch is not exactly clear-cut therefore. What it would mean, though, is a significant pay rise (the Bundesliga club would reportedly double his salary). During the summer Atleti tied the player down to a new deal that extended his stay at the Metropolitano until 2024, but only a few weeks later the France international went on to win the World Cup as a starting player, increasing his potential to earn. Due to La Liga salary limiting regulations, Atlético are unable to offer him a pay rise under present conditions, their player wages currently accounting for around 70 percent of their 2018/19 budget.
Atleti’s inability to budge, combined with the player’s increasing profile and an €80million buyout clause that is very much accessible for European superclubs like Bayern gives them diminished power with which to negotiate. Emotional arguments may be of little use, too. Lucas is an Atlético academy graduate who has risen from the youth ranks to a regular first team position, with the potential to become one of their new heroes starting this year. His brother Theo didn’t let sentiment get in the way, though, when he rejected several offers for a new deal from Atleti and joined Real Madrid in 2017. The siblings share the same agent.
Their only hope is that Bayern back off, at least until the summer, encouraged by the good relationship between the two clubs. Whether the Bundesliga side choose to strike now or in June could have a huge impact on Atlético’s season: a recurring spate of muscular injuries that has decimated their squad means that without Lucas, their chances of winning trophies are far slimmer.
That would also be the case in the Champions League of course, where Bayern could yet lock horns with the Spaniards in a competition that is particularly important for both of them this season. Atleti eliminated the Bavarians the last time they met in a knockout tie, so just how charitable are Bayern really feeling? Even if they are, with Atlético ultimately relying on changing the player’s mind and convincing him to sit tight until the summer for an improved contract, who’s to say Bayern will be the only buyers to appear?