“Ladies and gentlemen, Atlético Madrid will be playing four-four-f**king-two.”
Mike Bassett’s famous line is clearly scribbled across the top of every single page of Diego Simeone’s notebook. The Argentine is as stubborn as Ricky Tomlinson’s character when it comes to his tactical formation, even when he does throw in a dash of adventurousness by playing three forwards at the same time.
Against Rayo Vallecano, Atlético were struggling to get anything going in attack and were, once again, relying on Jan Oblak to keep them in the game. The first hour featured some of their worst football of the season, so Simeone decided to act in the 60th minute and introduced Diego Costa and Thomas Lemar for Vitolo and Ángel Correa.
While some might have naively expected a change of formation, there was to be none. Costa moved into the front two alongside Álvaro Morata, Griezmann shifted out to the left wing and Lemar occupied the right wing. The 4-4-2 was going nowhere.
The effect was positive and the quarter of an hour between the double substitution and Griezmann’s deflected winner were much improved. The mere presence of two natural centre-forwards forced the Rayo back line to shuffle around 10 metres backwards and los colchoneros finally started to look semi-dangerous going forward.
Of course, once Griezmann scored Simeone replaced Rodri with Stefan Savić and Atleti voluntarily handed back those 10 metres by retreating themselves in an attempt to shut up shop for the final 15 minutes. It worked. Just.
To see Griezmann’s starting position being on the left flank was an unusual sight, but one we may have to get used to going forward if Simeone wants to play Costa and Morata as a front two. To expect the Frenchman to occupy something of a No.10 role just behind the strikers is a pipe dream, as Simeone won’t want to be so attacking.
For Real Sociedad fans, though, it won’t have looked strange at all to see Griezmann on the left-hand side, as that’s where he predominantly played when he was in the first team after graduating through the Basque club’s academy. He made almost 100 appearances on the left flank for them, performing at a rate of one goal or assist every 182 minutes. Admittedly, this wasn’t always part of a 4-4-2 as 4-2-3-1s and 4-3-3s were used as well, but the 27-year-old certainly knows what it takes to be effective from wide and what defensive responsibilities come with playing out there — even more so as he’s also played a handful of matches for Atlético and for France in that position.
The question, though, is whether or not this is the optimal place for the third-best player in the world to be playing. Is it really effective to oblige him to track back and help out a struggling Filipe Luís? Is it really worth moving him further away from goal in order to allow the inconsistent Costa-Morata duo to have more shots?
There are clear disadvantages associated with this positional change and not as many obvious advantages. Maybe Costa and Morata do find their shooting boots, making it worthwhile to have them both in the penalty area. Maybe Griezmann’s ability to cut inside from wide creates space we didn’t think existed, as we saw at times on Saturday when Rayo’s right-back didn’t follow him and when his starting position was too deep for him to be marked by a centre-back. Maybe having Griezmann deeper improves the midfield, similar to what we see with Lionel Messi at Barcelona when he starts in a similarly deep position, albeit on the right.
We’ll simply have to wait and see how this attacking trio — which I am officially naming the “MAD” right now — functions going forward. We’ll surely not be seeing all three of these players together against Juventus, a match where we can expect four central midfielders across the middle four. But against smaller LaLiga sides, Costa, Morata and Griezmann could start together. In a 4-4-2, of course.