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We’ll Always Have Milan: Yannick Carrasco’s tantalizing, unfulfilling spell at Atlético Madrid

The Belgian’s move east concluded a tumultuous time at the club he supported as a child.

Real Madrid v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final
Carrasco reacts after equalizing against Real Madrid.
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

If there’s a single clip to sum up Yannick Carrasco’s time at Atlético Madrid, it’s this one:

Let’s analyze this move blow-by-blow, shall we?

  1. Yannick is matched up with Santiago Arias, PSV’s up-and-coming Colombian international right back.
  2. Yannick absolutely leaves Arias for dead with a five-star-FIFA-skill-move ankle breaker. Arias actually falls over before sheepishly getting up and jogging behind the play.
  3. Looking up and seeing a wave of green jerseys, Yannick realizes that, despite his brilliance, he has relatively few options.
  4. Yannick funnels a cross-cum-shot into the general vicinity of Kévin Gameiro and the PSV keeper.
  5. A defender easily side-foots the ball out of danger.
  6. Yannick throws his hands up in disgust and begins to pout.

For three years, Carrasco frustrated Atlético supporters. It would have been easier for everyone involved if he were predictable — a straightforward, selfish winger who can’t finish. But he wasn’t. Just when you wanted to give up on him, he’d score a cracker or square for a teammate instead of going it alone. On his day, he was Atleti’s most creative player.

If final ball and end product didn’t matter, Carrasco would be one of the best footballers in the world. Arguably Atleti’s most talented and technical player, Carrasco was never able to transcend mere flashes of brilliance. He would often dribble past three defenders just to pass when he should have shot or shoot when he should have passed. He’d score a hat trick against last-place Granada and disappear in a top four clash. He’d seem to have it all figured out — he was probably Atleti’s best attacking player during the first half of the 2016/2017 campaign — only to reveal a false dawn.

He scored in a Champions League final — tying the game against Real Madrid, no less — and celebrate in an iconic fashion by running into the stands to kiss his girlfriend.

He moved to newly-promoted Chinese side Dalian Yifang less than two years later.

The first match I ever saw at the Vicente Calderón was against Sporting Gijón in November 2015. Spoos — my more football-savvy friend and companion on that day — taught me everything I knew about the team at that point: “Griezmann scores a lot and Godín is world-class.”

Though Atlético bossed possession, they struggled to ever really threaten Pichu Cuéllar’s net. Griezmann and Godín were clearly very good, but they weren’t the player I noticed.

Atlético’s number 21 — rail-thin and sporting Cristiano Ronaldo levels of hair gel — seemed to be the most threatening player on the field. Pacy and courageous, he constantly ran at Gijón’s defense, seemingly getting wherever he wanted. Though the crosses he whipped in were average at best, he seemed the one Atlético player capable of a magical moment.

The supporters confirmed my hunch when, in the 78th minute, they whistled Carrasco’s

substitution. I didn’t know it at the time, but such an overt reaction to a decision made by Cholo Simeone was sacrilege. The fans clearly loved Carrasco.

When he was substituted, Carrasco had completed six dribbles. No other player on either side had completed more than one. But despite his magic, he had nothing to show for it. And Godín and Griezmann — the stars I knew — combined for the winning goal in stoppage time.

Nevertheless, the whistling revealed that it had taken Carrasco mere months to win over the Calderón.

The son of an Andalusian mother and a Portuguese father, Carrasco literally grew up wearing red and white. After his father skipped town when he was young, Carrasco decided he would drop his father’s surname (Ferreira) and just go by “Yannick Carrasco” professionally.

“[My mother is] very important to me. I owe her almost everything I have,” Carrasco said. “I haven’t seen my father in 15 years. She gave me the belief when I played at Genk and supported me when I gave up studying to concentrate on football. She’s had it hard, single mother to four kids [Hugo and Celia, born through another relationship, are his younger siblings], I’m eternally grateful to her. She’s everything to me.”

As a boy of 11, Carrasco decided to leave Vilvoorde — the immigrant-heavy Brussels suburb where he lived with his mother and siblings — to pursue his footballing dreams at Genk. Though he struggled with a language barrier, he never wavered in his self-belief.

“What surprised me most was his maturity for his age. I’ve never seen a footballer so sure of his own ability,” said Frédéric Barilaro, the former director of education at Monaco.

Carrasco made that move to Ligue 2 in 2010. Over the next five years, Carrasco eventually established himself as a key cog in the first team by doing what he had done since he was a boy: get on the ball, bet on himself and run at the defense. Hard.

AS Monaco v Arsenal: UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

“He’s a street footballer,” Luis Rodríguez del Teso — the 22 year-old scout who wrote the first report about Carrasco for Atleti after watching the Belgian U-19 side thrash Estonia — said. “He played in freestyle tournaments and he knows a lot of futsal tricks. He stood out for his technique, his quality, the shot power he already had, his speed and his ambition.”

After James Rodríguez and Radamel Falcao left in the summer of 2014, Monaco rebuilt around Anthony Martial, Bernardo Silva and the fiery Carrasco. At one point, it seemed as though Carrasco might be the brightest jewel of the bunch. After a strong season at the heart of Monaco’s attack — which included a UCL tie-killing goal at Arsenal — he signed for los colchoneros in an approximately €20 million deal in summer 2015.

Carrasco began his Atlético tenure on the bench, like many of Simeone’s marquee signings. However, he quickly worked his way into the fans’ good graces, scoring a golazo after a mazy run against Valencia.

Over the course of the season, Yanni found his way into the fans’ good graces even as he sometimes struggled to convince Simeone. The supporters chanted his name outside the hotel before the 2016 Champions League Final.

After Carrasco scored in that final — and generally dominated Madrid’s defense — he started three games and scored once for Belgium’s star-studded Euro 2016 squad. He appeared to have Europe at his feet.

He picked up where he left off at the start of the 2016 league and Champions League campaigns. With Antoine Griezmann struggling for form, Carrasco carried the attack, opening the season with an explosion of goals and assists — he soon earned a lucrative renewal with a €100m release clause. However, this hot streak would not last, and Carrasco gradually earned the label of “flat-track bully,” piling up stats against the Granadas and Las Palmas-es of the world while providing little value against Real Madrid, Sevilla and Barcelona.

Since his hot streak to start the 2016/17 season, Carrasco has never really shed his labels: wildly talented but wildly inconsistent. He slowly lost Cholo’s confidence, and the Argentine left the Belgian out of the starting XI more and more frequently, culminating in a near-total freeze-out midway through the 2017/18 season.

Although the China move seemed to materialize out of nowhere, looking back we can find signs of Carrasco’s imminent departure. Along with Vitolo’s arrival (which was personally ensured by Simeone), Cholo’s lack of faith and Yannick’s inconsistency when he did get on the pitch played a role in the Belgian’s exit. Carrasco likely realized that he would face competition for his place in Belgium’s World Cup squad this year. He wasn’t playing here, so why not move to a place where he can be the first name on the team sheet and get that ¥¥¥ to boot? Paulinho likely made the move possible by proving you can play in China, make a boatload of cash, still be a key member of your national team and eventually move back to a more fulfilling footballing setting.

There are rumors that Carrasco was unpopular in the dressing room. Sure, he walked off the field like a jerk when he was substituted that one time and occasionally got mad at coaches in training. While social media can be deceiving, Lucas, Griezmann and Filipe seem to like him just fine:

Fans have criticized Carrasco for a lack of ambition. A 24-year-old rising star going to China is almost unheard of. His situation is far more like Oscar’s than like Jackson Martínez or Carlos Tevez. Carrasco isn’t ready for the retirement home.

However, the game is changing where China is concerned. Paulinho’s career was declared D.O.A. when he swapped North London for Guangzhou in 2015. Since then, he’s become (arguably) the top performer on Brazil’s national team and a key cog in the Barça machine. The best Carrasco can hope for is his own Paulinho narrative. He can still become a top player in a major league.

For Atlético, it’s somewhat tougher to look on the bright side. Bayern Munich were allegedly ready to pay €50 million for Carrasco this past summer. At some point in the summer, Atleti also knew they were getting Vitolo in 2018. While Atleti may have wanted a stopgap until the Canary Islander could arrive, they’ve reportedly sold Carrasco for just €30 million, with 25 percent of that figure sliding into Monaco’s coffers. Given the club’s usually-dire financial straits, leaving €15 million on the table (after Monaco’s cut) is a massive L for Atleti’s decision makers.

As for the fans, we’ll always have that moment in Milan, when the man who wore the shirt as a child seemed to have a nonexistent ceiling and a limitless future.