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Thomas Lemar has not adjusted to Atlético — nor has Atlético adjusted to him

Atlético’s €70 million winger is yet to impress over his 16 months in the capital, and time may be running out for him to make his mark.

Atletico Madrid v Athletic de Bilbao - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

The highly-anticipated video game “Death Stranding” finally dropped on Nov. 8. I have not had the chance to play it yet, but Hideo Kojima’s latest has received praise aplenty despite reservations about its pace and indulgence — though it did inspire this kickass track from Scottish synth-pop trio CHVRCHES.

A prominent diversion in the dark, demolished world of “Death Stranding” is “timefall,” a phenomenon comparable to acid rain. The more exposure a player has to timefall, the more likely it is the player’s armor and baggage will disintegrate, which hampers efforts to make important deliveries throughout the game’s post-apocalyptic hellscape.

Thomas Lemar appears to be a real-life victim of timefall. The Frenchman celebrated his 24th birthday on Tuesday, but his game is aging at a rate beyond his years — and continued subpar performances leave him at risk of a short, unfulfilled Atlético Madrid career.

Long linked with a move for Lemar, Atlético pulled the trigger during the 2018 World Cup and purchased the player from AS Monaco. The transfer fee shattered the club record at the time, and the talented winger was expected to be at the center of an exciting side which had just convinced Antoine Griezmann to stay (via a one-year, €23 million deal). Plus, Rodrigo Hernández had arrived from Villarreal in May to supplement a Europa League-winning core.

Lemar’s breakthrough 2016/17 season showed how influential he could be, as every possession in which the player was involved per 90 minutes (xGChain90) generated 0.66 expected goals. Every possession in which the France international participated without a shot or a chance created (xGBuildup90) produced 0.35 expected goals. Furthermore, he recorded a ridiculous number of key passes per 90 as he helped Monaco to an historic league title and a Champions League semifinal.

Thomas Lemar, Monaco, Ligue 1, 2016/17. Courtesy of Understat.

Lemar’s first official match for Atlético was the 2018 UEFA Super Cup, and he contributed to the winning effort in Tallinn with a man of the match-type display. Diego Simeone put the player to work in future matches and intended to mold him into Arda Turan 2.0 — a well-rounded wide midfielder, able to pick out a pass anywhere in the final third and run for hours on end.

Lemar, 2018/19.

But Lemar’s production began to trend downward by the end of 2018. Simeone’s tactical philosophy doesn’t always do justice to creative wingers, a glaring weakness in a system that has otherwise averaged a trophy per season since 2012. We saw dips in Lemar’s contributions to sustained possession and chance creation as he tracked back regularly in 2018/19. But more worrying was his on-ball passivity, his inability to take games by the scruff of the neck as was anticipated.

Lemar, 2019/20.

If Lemar’s first season in Spain was concerning, his second season is setting off blaring alarms. His chance creation has declined sharply. His per-90 contributions to spells of possession have been halved since his age-21 season. He averages less than one shot and one key pass per 90 minutes now. He has completed 90 minutes once over his 15 appearances — and between LaLiga and the Champions League, Simeone has brought him off the bench (seven times) almost as often as he has started him (eight times).

Cholo has supported Lemar publicly on many occasions since his arrival, but he did declare on Spanish radio in October that his improvement was key to closing Atlético’s gap to Barcelona and Real Madrid. One might wonder if the Argentine privately is losing faith in his one-time record signing. Vitolo and especially Ángel Correa have deserved more attention and plaudits than a player who hasn’t clicked with his coach in nearly a year and a half.

The problem with giving up too soon on Lemar is he could be considered a distressed asset — essentially, damaged goods unloaded at a price well below market value. Atlético would be unable to recoup his transfer fee, and he’d be a good candidate to prosper in setups closer to those of his rampaging Monaco sides. As ever, los Colchoneros have to weigh keeping a tidy checkbook against making ruthless moves to remain highly competitive. It’s hard to imagine Atleti maintaining a positive net spend in a window when Lemar is sold — but if his form stays as is, replacing him possibly would improve the playing squad.

However, this is speculation at the moment. For now, Lemar is here and Simeone is correct in that the midfielder’s form is closely tied to Atlético’s ceiling. There are moments every few games when his class — the slick dribbling, the passing finesse — is hard to ignore. Those moments have to turn into minutes, matches, weeks, months. Sooner than later we’ll know if he has been able to overcome the metaphorical timefall or if the circumstances have truly eroded his potential.