Atletico Madrid’s 30 million euro man is finally reaching his optimal performance level. The remaking of Antoine Griezmann has been a long slog since becoming the second most expensive player in the Spanish champions’ history. Though he had to endure frustration, confidence-testing goal droughts and countless early substitutions along the way, unwavering faith from manager Diego Simeone is now paying off for the Frenchman. Seven goals in the past five La Liga rounds, more than double the tally from his previous 15, are the reward for his efforts.
There is little doubt that the raw materials Atletico purchased last summer were already of a high standard. Griezmann arrived at the Vicente Calderon after scoring a career-best 20 goals in a season for Real Sociedad, not to mention appearing five times for France at the World Cup. At the same time, he also arrived as a player whose game required adjustments before it would fully suit Atletico’s. Though occasionally deployed centrally in San Sebastian, the vast majority of Griezmann’s goals and assists for the Basques occurred when starting from a wide position. At his new club, key players Koke and Arda Turan already held down the outermost midfield roles, so a third wheel wasn’t necessary. Certainly not one worth 30 million euros.
Reinforcements were however required further forward. Losing the electricity of Diego Costa and the tactical intelligence of David Villa meant there was a significant gap to fill up front should Atletico have any hope of defending their league title. Finding a way of offsetting that has been one of Simeone’s obsessions. Bringing in no fewer than six new forwards this season reflects the task at hand.
Griezmann had spent the majority of his professional career playing in wide areas, so he wasn’t an obvious candidate to become one of Atletico’s front two. Like all great managers, Simeone looked beyond the position and saw the player’s qualities. Incredibly quick, technically sublime and the kind of footballer who wills opponents into committing fouls; he may not have arrived at the Calderon a natural striker, but he did possess several of the key characteristics that Atletico had lost.
At the same time, he also lacked some of the other traits, and there remained a tricky process of adaptation to overcome. At Real Sociedad, Griezmann was one of the stars. At Atletico there are no stars. That may sound like a cliche, but watch the way the entire team works as a unit and that fact becomes clear very quickly. For forwards, the focus on the collective over the individual can often mean not touching the ball for lengthy spells, only to then be required to use it with exceptional efficiency when it arrives at your feet. At his presentation, the 23-year-old defined himself as a “player who likes to be in contact with the ball.” He was in for a rude awakening.
In his opening months in a red-and-white shirt, Griezmann cut the figure of someone playing catch-up. Encouraging bright periods were counteracted with a failure to take simple chances, and he was frequently the first player substituted off by Simeone. Fatigue, both mental and physical, appeared to play their part in the misses — he would often start games well before performance levels dipped in the second half. Heavy feet and a struggle to catch his breath marked training sessions, the intensity of which caught him by surprise. The first league goal didn’t arrive until November, testing his resolve. Would he continue to follow Simeone’s instructions to the letter in an effort to improve in the long-term? Or would he do as Alessio Cerci did and leave the Calderon just months after arriving?
The France international opted for the former, and in winter, something clicked. Fitness levels increased. Work without the ball became more effective, more streamlined. His understanding with Mario Mandzukic grew stronger. The Croatian is unlikely to win in a straight sprint but has an intelligence to his link-up play that isn’t mentioned often enough, and he used that to help his new partner. Mandzukic increasingly started to come short in an attempt to produce a lay-off or flick-on into his French counterpart’s path, looking to exploit the younger forward’s raw pace. Griezmann improved in his reading of where and when those spaces would occur. In essence, he became more of a striker. More of an Atletico striker. The goals were all that were missing.
They soon followed. On Dec. 21, Griezmann scored the first hat trick at the new San Mames against Athletic Bilbao. Mandzukic wasn’t even on the pitch to help him, a measure of his newfound comfort in a central role. Goal one was a towering header from a goalmouth player’s position, the fruit of an exceptional leap for a man of average height. The second was clinical, making use of a precise first touch then an accurate left-footed finish. The third involved him dropping off to play a quick give-and-go with Arda Turan, before beating the offside trap and bursting behind the Athletic back four, tapping in to end the move.
It had taken nearly four months, but here was the first big payoff for both Simeone’s corrective work and the player’s willingness to learn. The rewards kept coming. With January barely two weeks old, there was a brace against Levante in La Liga, and an exceptional two-assist performance against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey. More impressive still was his showing against Rayo Vallecano at the Calderon last Saturday. Recovering possession 10 times, he hit the target three times, and twice wheeled away to celebrate his score. The hat trick was only narrowly denied by the post. Effort, efficiency and intelligence rolled into one lethal package. This, the end product of the process, was what the La Liga champions paid a significant fee for.
Simeone’s post-match assessment was that of a teacher thrilled with his pupil: “He has grown a lot since November. This is the player we need. Beyond the goals and assists I really value his work for the team. That’s making him a better footballer.”
The Argentine is incredibly demanding but if players put their faith in him then more often than not a net improvement is the outcome. He has the kind of vision that marks the best coaches, foreseeing ways of using a player’s talent that others often miss. In the past he transformed Raul Garcia from an unpopular and ineffective central midfielder to a forward who made significant contributions in trophy-winning campaigns. Turan went from talented but inconsistent to the full package in his manager’s hands. Griezmann is the next in line to graduate from Simeone’s finishing school. Expect him to have a big say in Atletico’s fortunes over the coming months.