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Meet Atlético’s new Griezmann

Ángel Correa has capitalized at last on his massive potential — and his magnificent form has kept Atleti afloat.

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

It has been said that “you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone,” and for most of this season the sentiment has rung very true to Atlético Madrid.

Juanfran and Filipe Luís were past it, but their departures carried serious sentimental value. Atlético received over €140 million for the pair, but Rodri and Lucas Hernández retain considerable potential. Of course, Diego Godín’s move to Italy was a big blow — even as Diego Simeone’s defense has maintained its stellar goals-conceded record.

But losing Antoine Griezmann — who perhaps left Atlético one year too late — created a hole in Atlético’s attack approximately the size of Meteor Crater. Most expected a record signing to fill this void — and following an explosive preseason, fill it right away.

João Félix has not filled said void, and he shouldn’t have been expected to in the first place. His signing may yet turn out to be €126 million well-spent, even though that investment most likely won’t pay off in an injury-blighted year one of his seven-year contract. The Portuguese is not this Atlético side’s savior — again, there shouldn’t be any shame in that.

Besides, Atlético’s savior in this transitional year has been here all along.

Ángel Correa’s first four seasons in Madrid were erratic, defined by fluctuating form and immature behavior. He struggled as an out-of-place winger and achieved more success as a second striker — unfortunately for him, Griezmann held that role. But now, with the Frenchman gone, Correa has received the chance to play his favored position. The results have been fantastic.

Correa turns 25 just before Atlético travel to Liverpool next month — that’s around the same age when Griezmann became a superstar. Even with over 200 Rojiblanco appearances to his name, he had never been a crucial player and the club nearly sold him to AC Milan last summer. But this season, AC10 has emerged as a foundational piece and this team’s talisman. No longer an enigma, he is responsible for 11 of Atleti’s 28 league goals — five goals and six assists. Only Álvaro Morata, with eight contributions, can say he’s close.

The Argentine’s best attribute in the past has been his ability to stay healthy — let’s knock on wood that continues — amid all the injuries which have struck down his teammates in the past couple seasons. Correa has started all 11 of Atlético’s games since 2020 began and has played the full 90 minutes (or 120, as in the Supercopa final) all but twice. He has notched five goals and two assists in that time, and he has scored or assisted on five of the team’s past six goals in all competitions. His six league assists place him just behind Luis Suárez for second in LaLiga — and with the Uruguayan possibly out for the season, Correa could place just behind Lionel Messi on the league’s assist chart if he keeps this up.

Correa’s touches vs. Granada (goal)
Correa’s touches at Valencia

Notice anything about these two screenshots? Correa has started to take more touches in the middle and even on the left-hand side of the pitch — a distribution similar to Griezmann’s, who as the driving force of the attack needed to have the ball wherever he could pick it up. This comparison is more obvious from the two screenshots below.

Correa’s touches versus Liverpool
Correa’s touches versus Villarreal (goal, assist)

What’s more, he has had more impact on his goal-shy side than Griezmann has had on goal-happy Barcelona — in over 600 fewer minutes.

And here is a more authoritative yet just-as-stylish Correa, scoring and crafting all-important goals.

Correa almost singlehandedly secured three points for Atlético against Villarreal last weekend, further underscoring how he has managed to meld his high work rate with opportunity and ruthlessness.

The San Lorenzo product had shown in previous seasons that he could do this, but his petulance and inability to stay locked in for long stretches prevented him from taking the next step. Correa has now taken that next step, and it has been delightful to see him put some doubts to bed. He has been Atlético’s co-MVP this season — along with Jan Oblak, as ever — and Simeone’s persistence with him is finally paying off. A strong conclusion to the season could see Correa, under contract to 2024, steer Atleti back into the Champions League for an eighth straight season — and maybe, just maybe, generate a huge upset over Liverpool in two weeks’ time.