Thomas Lemar is back. He didn’t go anywhere in mind or body, but his spirit had floated up and out of the Wanda Metropolitano and was drifting aimlessly around Madrid. The same French attacker who could break an ankle with a swivel and dupe a back four with a drop of his hips was gone, replaced with the husk of a professional footballer, shunted to the wing to perish.
But a high tide rises all boats, you may have heard. And Atletico Madrid’s new attacking style means Lemar has found himself again.
Diego Simeone said after his side’s 1-0 win at Valencia that he had no players like Lemar in his squad. He had shone in that game but was replaced before he could enjoy the fruits of his labor. Yannick Carrasco forced an own goal after the 25-year-old had been replaced to decide the match.
Goalless against Real Valladolid on Saturday, Atlético were teetering dangerously close to what might have been a crippling draw at the beginning of a massive week.
Lemar was looking over his shoulder to the sideline, where Koke and João Félix were getting ready to enter. It was about that time. Another good performance, two in a row for Lemar in LaLiga, but Simeone needed to make a change. Lemar has not survived beyond 64 minutes in any game he has started this season, and there were 56 on the clock when Kieran Trippier broke down the right and swung a fizzy cross low into the box.
Lemar was not the ball’s intended target — Luis Suárez was, but he couldn’t reach it. However, Lemar latched on to it at the back post nonetheless and his first-time finish from a difficult angle was his first goal since April 2019. It wasn’t easy, but nothing has been for Lemar, who can be effortlessly elegant on the ball, since he moved to Atlético.
Thomas Lemar, the €70 million role player, had added an end product to some impressive performances in recent weeks.
How has Lemar improved?
In general, Atlético are more attacking this season. Simeone has altered his approach and given his most creative players license to be creative more often. The Argentine has always said the players he had available would dictate how he played. The potential of Suárez, Félix, and Marcos Llorente could not be held back any longer, and he has unleashed them on LaLiga. Carrasco, Koke, Lemar, and Ángel Correa have all improved, too.
Lemar is playing more centrally recently, which has led to more involvement, more time with the ball and more confidence when he does get it.
In his newsletter “spacespacespace,” John Muller talks about build-ups, saying the most difficult thing about it is that most of a team’s players are facing the wrong direction. One of the toughest things to do is progress the ball into the next level of the field with your player facing the right way. Anyone can play a line-breaking pass to a player with his back to goal — but to get the ball into dangerous areas with a man facing play is what every defense is trying to prevent.
Lemar can spin like no other player in LaLiga and get himself facing the right direction. Playing on the wing reduced his options to turn and build an attack. Simeone wasn’t willfully playing Lemar out of position. It’s just that Lemar’s best position didn’t exist in a system where you are either a left midfielder shuttling to the wing and back inside again, or you are a central midfielder. Félix forced Simeone to make room for a number 10. During such a hectic period in the schedule, the Portuguese has needed rest and Lemar is his obvious replacement in that role.
Against Valencia, we saw Lemar play well in the number 10 position. Against Valladolid, after a good start and some nice first half touches, he died out of the game and was moved to the left where Simeone said “he offered directness.” The goal came when he was stationed on the left, a position we thought was not his best. But this is a more left wing back role than the left midfield position he had grown accustomed to (and tired of) in the past. For the goal, Saúl and Suárez occupied the right back and centre-half, and Lemar knew he was free if the ball made its way to him.
Lemar attempted and completed the most passes he has in a game all year on Saturday. According to FBRef, he also completed 10 progressive passes, six more than his previous best of four against Valencia. That’s also his most ever in an Atlético jersey.
Lemar’s role remains hard to pin down, but his versatility is being used now as a central part of the team’s tactics. French football expert Johnathan Johnson explains that Lemar “was educated by Caen as a box-to-box midfielder” and says his range of passing is good and that he carries the ball well. We have seen all of these skills from Lemar in the past and there is no doubt that he is a technically excellent footballer.
“Lemar is working hard to show the footballer that he is,” Simeone said after the Valladolid game. The problem has been bringing “the footballer he has inside him” (as Cholo says) out into public view.
It’s getting harder for Atlético to deny their “favourites” tag in LaLiga this season. They are attacking more often and with more bodies than we have seen in the past and the entire squad’s confidence has improved. Now, Thomas Lemar is back, though his talent had never actually gone anywhere — we were just looking for it in the wrong places.