Long Reads

Antoine Griezmann’s Atletico career: a tremendous talent in an untouchable era

As Diego Simeone and his band of merry men bound aboard a shuttle bus at Lyon-Saint Exupery Airport, Antoine Griezmann gripped tightly to one of those limber handles that hang down from the metal rails, sporting Los Rojiblancos’ scarf across his forehead, whilst bouncing to a chorus of his own song. Situated just an hour from his birthplace of Macon, Le Petit Prince had never been held in such royal regard. Everyone was smiling, singing, swaying the bus, and it was all for the Frenchman.

Earlier that night Griezmann danced his way, almost single-handedly, to a brace and a European trophy three years in the making. His first, executed with the effervescence and efficiency of a man thoroughly enjoying his time on the big stage. His second, with the eagerness and equanimity of a player still suffering from a penalty miss in the 2015 Champions League final. Finally, after years on the periphery of paranormality, as Gabi and Godin, Savic and Saul echoed the sounds of the Atleti faithful along the streets of Spain and France, Griezmann appeared invincible – appeared being the key word.

On the surface, Atletico’s unstoppable star, their focal point, their hero had demonstrated his paramount importance when it mattered, when silverware was at stake for the first time. Brewing underneath, however, was an ever-growing bond with Barcelona, bearing triumph with a bittersweet taste.

Even when he took to social media to proclaim Atletico as: “My fans, my team, MY HOME!!!” amidst widespread rumours, the attempt to exhibit emotion through exclamation marks and capital letters wasn’t enough to sweep the swarm of scepticism under the Wanda Metropolitano carpet. When he left for Nou Camp twelve months later, the vexation of everyone at the club towards Griezmann – born out of an exit strategy as heedless as Boris Johnson’s – had been vindicated.

When Griezmann’s plaque – found on Atletico’s Legends Walkway for reaching a century of club appearances – was defaced by fans following his transfer, their hatred towards their former frontman was confirmed. This resentment was cited as a reaction to his deceptive dealings upon departure, due to an apparent pre-agreement with Barcelona, for which the club were fined for negotiating with Griezmann without Atletico’s permission. However, part of their infuriation was undoubtedly down to the recollection of a career in Madrid that could, and probably should have been so much more.

To truly comprehend the impact the Frenchman had on Los Colchoneros, we need to rewind to the very start. In the summer succeeding the club’s first La Liga title in 18 years, Simeone endured an attacking overhaul, with all three of his trusted attacking options: David Villa, Adrian Lopez and Diego Costa moving elsewhere. In the hopes of covering all their newly absent bases, Atleti acquired Mario Mandzukic, Raul Jimenez and of course, Antoine Griezmann.

The scene was set for one of the three to come in and steal the show. Behind them, their unbreakable defence was still largely intact; their midfield, fraught with dynamism and diligence; the team, charged with El Cholo’s DNA.

Their quality and identity were distinctly dangerous. Punctilious perfection, if you will. But sometimes, their meticulous, methodical model – supreme in so many ways – was simply not enough.

Upon his 30 million arrival from Sociedad in July 2014, Griezmann took some time to settle into Simeone’s setup, but ultimately slipped in seamlessly as time went on. By the end of his first season, he had netted 22 La Liga goals, including a hat-trick in a 4-1 at Bilbao and a goal in the 4-0 derby win over Real before a run of eight goals in five games through April.

In typical terms, it was a remarkable first season. As many had hoped, he was busy, brave and brilliant in the final third, his left foot ruthless and his aerial ability freakish for a man of his size. Alongside Mandzukic, 45 goals were scored by their new front two. Alas, as had long been apparent – none more so than now for Griezmann since his move into Spain’s elite bracket – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were in a league, and a planet, completely of their own.

In the league alone, the Frenchman matched Neymar on 22, a tally Messi passed after 22 matches and Ronaldo just 14. Griezmann did, however, help Atletico to the Spanish Super Cup with the decisive assist in a 2-1 aggregate win over Ronaldo and co. in his first two games at the club.

In fact, Atleti had a great record against their city rivals, beating them twice in the league and over two legs in both the Copa Del Rey and Super Cup before losing out to them in the Champions League quarter finals, all whilst limiting CR7 to three goal contributions in eight games compared to Griezmann’s four. They may have won their battles, but they never came close to winning the war, finishing 14 points adrift of the top two.

Onto the 2015/16 campaign, the settling in was complete, the settees had been purchased and it was time to step it up a notch. Toby Alderweireld, Arda Turan and Mandzukic among others made way for Jackson Martinez, Stefan Savic, Yannick Carrasco, and the returning Filipe Luis to name but a few. The bespoke decorations were in place, the mantelpiece was adorned with expensive antiques, but the settee was still the showpiece.

During his debut season, Griezmann’s fire was fuelled with the desire to prove himself alongside the world’s best attackers, which he achieved by earning his place in the La Liga Team of the Year next to Messi and Ronaldo in the front three.

This time around, it was about eclipsing those at the top of the tree, conquering the colossi of Spanish football, and the aggression and passion shown in every goal celebration illustrated exactly that – worlds away from the forthcoming Fortnite dances.

By this point, Diego Simeone’s philosophies were well-documented and deeply engrained into every one of his players – except Griezmann. Yes, he worked tirelessly and engineered Atleti’s first line of defence with infectious energy and efficiency, but he had a devastating dimension that could not be channelled or changed.

To unlock his full potential, Griezmann had to embark on his own attacking endeavours to let his cutthroat, world class calibre shine, and it was then when Simeone got the absolute best out of his main man.

Atletico performed with extraordinary order and game management, conceding just 18 goals in the league with Griezmann, more often than not, making the marginal difference going forward. To emphasise this further, Los Rojiblancos won ten La Liga matches 1-0 this campaign, with the Frenchman scoring or assisting six of the match-winning goals.

Their plan to play with patience and dependability as pleasure continued to startle their opponents with increased immaculacy, and this wasn’t just the likes of Getafe and Granada either. Not only were they well in the running for another league title, but the Champions League was certainly achievable. As long as their Macon-born magician was in the team, everyone at Atleti had reason to believe anything was possible.

Their unbreakable backline meant that they would never allow matches to run away from them, but if Griezmann had an off day, they were never really in it either. Take their Champions League quarter final tie, for instance, after taking the lead through Fernando Torres at Camp Nou, the Spaniard was then sent off, leaving Griezmann isolated up top.

From then on, the Frenchman never got a grip of the game and Barca’s bombardment of the Atleti area finally told when Luis Suarez netted twice to give the hosts a slight advantage heading to Madrid. With the home crowd and a full team beside him, Griezmann came into his own, picking up elusive pockets of space in dangerous areas, lurking on the last man with intent.

Even when his first half opener gave Atletico the advantage, he wanted more and would not stop until that came. With five minutes to go, he slotted home a second to send the champions out. In a tale of two halves, the one where Griezmann turned up just so happened to be that famous night at Vicente Calderon.

As Atleti put in another monumental shift in the semi-finals to surpass Bayern Munich, it was Griezmann who again popped up at Allianz Arena with the goal to send them through on away goals. So to the final, with the spotlight on Le Petit Prince and the king in Cristiano to stand out for their respective sides.

As ever, Sergio Ramos stepped up for Los Blancos in a big game to open the scoring, and with Ronaldo silenced by Simeone’s stalwarts once more, it was Griezmann’s time to outdo his formidable adversary. One minute into the second half, a reckless Pepe foul on Torres in the penalty area gave Griezmann that golden opportunity he had craved, that he had envisioned excitedly in the days and the weeks leading up.

As time, and everything besides Keylor Navas and his unorthodox movements stood still, Griezmann squandered from the spot. A moment made for Atleti’s prolific protagonist was met with a declaration of guilt and sorrow smeared across his face, almost is if he knew – even when he scored his shoot out penalty following Carrasco’s late equaliser for Atleti in normal time – that Cristiano’s customary, crucial Champions League contribution was still to come.

As Real’s irrepressible force strolled up, completely placid in expression, to score the winner, a sea of white submerged the San Siro, the abs were out and the Portuguese powerhouse had prevailed once more with Griezmann drowning in dejection. On almost all fronts, he had excelled, but once again it wasn’t to be.

That pattern played out on multiple occasions throughout Griezmann’s time in Madrid, and the Atletico fans grew increasingly impatient as the Frenchman flirted with moves elsewhere. But you have to feel for him, irrespective of your aversion to his off-field antics.

Season after season, he performed phenomenally, producing moments of pure magic and frequenting in the art of improbable proficiency. However, pitched next to a pair of superhumans, his work reaped underwhelming rewards.

Though their trophy cabinet from Griezmann’s time uncovers little to catch the eye, the fact that he so often came close to those two untouchables at the peak of their powers deserves some serious credit that has, somewhat justifiably, been overshadowed.

For his time with Atleti, the fans should grip as tightly to his tremendous service to the club as Griezmann did to that shuttle bus handle. Click the video, skip to 5:57 and you can see what the club meant to him. Love him or hate him, it’s hard not to smile with the reminiscence of a special player at his career summit.

Article by Brad Jones via Football’s Finest

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