Simeone pushed hard for Antoine Griezmann’s Atlético return, and the boss got what he wished for in the early hours of Sept. 1.
Griezmann — who will be wearing Saúl Ñíguez’s vacated number eight shirt — completes the champions’ tantalizing attacking quintet, perhaps the envy of LaLiga. We can expect Griezmann to see plenty of action right away, given his familiarity with Simeone and with teammates who were at the club two years ago, such as Koke and Thomas Lemar.
But there are only so many places up for grabs in Cholo’s starting 11, and the system has changed from the rigid 4-4-2 to a flexible, possession-based 3-5-2. It could change further now that the Frenchman is indeed back for a second stint.
Here are three schemes to which Simeone could turn now that Griezmann is under his command once more.
Griezmann in a free role behind two forwards
In this configuration, three of Atlético’s five available forwards will be on the pitch at all times.
Griezmann’s presence will allow Simeone the chance to rotate liberally between Luis Suárez (who clocked over 2,500 minutes in LaLiga last season) and a more-lethal Ángel Correa. There will also be chances for Griezmann to play in a two with João Félix, the man brought in to replace him two summers ago.
Here, Griezmann plays a bit farther from goal, more-or-less as a #10. But he has the capability to roam, Lionel Messi-like, and bring others into the buildup play. I can foresee a lot of hockey assists for Félix or Suárez with this setup.
Unfortunately, this formation sacrifices Thomas Lemar, who is off to a brilliant start this season and is probably the best dribbler in the squad. Also, it leaves the midfield softer and more vulnerable, given Marcos Llorente’s proclivity to dart forward and pop up along the boundary or the edge of the 18-yard box. Koke could get overwhelmed, leaving more work for Jan Oblak and the defense.
The Griezmann-Suárez pairing
In my view, this strategy is one Atlético are likely to consider strongly.
Relatively speaking, this setup does not involve much overhauling (given the squad’s familiarity with the 4-4-2) and offers the most balance. Utilizing Rodrigo De Paul’s work rate in central midfield frees Llorente or Yannick Carrasco to get further forward when Atleti transition from defense to attack.
Griezmann and Suárez didn’t play in a pair at Barcelona. A certain Messi’s presence meant Griezmann was often shunted out to a wing, where he routinely struggled under both Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién. But the Griezmann-Suárez duo easily could get some burn in Madrid after encountering little success in Catalonia — the forwards combined for only three goals in nearly 1,800 minutes on the pitch together during the 2019/20 season.
The potential problems with this configuration include dropping Correa, who has been in sensational form since the end of last season. In addition, Mario Hermoso is a worse fit in this system as compared to one with three central defenders, so he’s likely sacrificed for pure full-back Renan Lodi. Atlético’s buildup would miss Hermoso’s progressive passing and carries from the back, but Lodi has always shined brighter in a four-man defense.
Griezmann as a false nine
Let’s get weird.
It is unlikely Simeone will be able to get away with pushing Suárez to the limit again in 2021/22. El Pistolero scored Atlético’s two biggest goals of the season last May, but he grew fatigued as winter turned to spring — and he was injured for most of April before netting the winners against Osasuna and Valladolid. He also turns 35 in January.
So, though Suárez is expected to remain a crucial contributor this season, reacquiring Griezmann means he has even more cover — and Cholo has more viable rotation options than in years past.
Griezmann has over-performed his expected goals tally for several years, and he is a better finisher than some realize despite his well-known dry spells. He returned to double-digits last season at Camp Nou, scoring 13 goals to improve upon a poor debut season there. He’s more than capable of functioning in this position.
A fluid, free-flowing front three without a recognized nine is also a chance for the now-firmly-under-the-radar Matheus Cunha to shine. He’s right-footed, so he can play on the right-hand side of this three, but he prefers to drop to the left side to pick up the ball — and he has experience as a center-forward from playing with Brazil’s under-23 side.
Elsewhere in this configuration, Geoffrey Kondogbia offers composure, steel, and press resistance next to Koke. But one of Llorente or Kieran Trippier has to go, leaving a sizable gap down Atlético’s right side. A possible solution is switching to a 4-3-3, which restores balance and allows Lemar to play his preferred central position.