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Athletic Club v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Ion Alcoba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

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Antoine Griezmann’s disastrous second stint shows Atlético’s failure to learn from the past

Atlético must return the Frenchman to Barcelona this summer or risk seriously compromising the squad for the next several seasons.

In 2019, Antoine Griezmann wore out his welcome at Atlético Madrid after five highly-successful seasons.

This time around, it only took him five months.

Saturday night’s game against Athletic Club in Bilbao was yet another opportunity for Griezmann to put his stamp on this season. In a decision seemingly motivated merely by blind faith, Simeone elected to start Griezmann (who has scored a dozen goals against Athletic in his career) next to his former Barcelona teammate Luis Suárez, last season’s title hero.

Atlético have struggled to create chances for Suárez for roughly six months, and Saturday was no different. The Uruguayan’s short Atleti career is petering out, and he left the insipid 2-0 defeat to Athletic with only one shot on target to his name.

But more damning is that Griezmann could not spring his strike partner loose, let alone help in any phase of the game, which is the entire reason why Simeone moved him around the tactical chessboard.

Athletic Club V Atletico De Madrid - La Liga Photo By Ricardo Larreina/Europa Press via Getty Images

Griezmann began the game at San Mamés as a left midfielder in a ridiculously-defensive 5-4-1 before taking up the roaming #7 role in which he used to thrive. Except he’s not thriving there anymore. Griezmann ended Saturday’s match with one shot on target in 90 minutes and one free kick that struck the crossbar early in the second half.

When Atlético won the ball in midfield and looked to counter quickly, Griezmann often opted to slow things down and play a short, lateral pass to an often-surprised midfielder. Atleti would then lose the ball again and line back up to defend.

Atlético had to work hard to build a new attacking identity after selling Griezmann in 2019. Who, then, could ever have foreseen that the fly in the ointment contributing to its more-or-less utter collapse (0 goals in five of the past six games)...would be Griezmann himself, who has virtually been locked-in as a starter since scoring two of his four Champions League goals against Liverpool in October?

Griezmann, who has scored three league goals all season and none since Nov. 28?

Griezmann, a player who Atlético had no need to reacquire last summer, a player who can no longer physically hold up as a forward and instead looks like he’s on his way to becoming a highly-expensive, garden-variety wide midfielder?

“The problem is not that Simeone wanted Griezmann back,” Barcelona-based journalist Albert Ortega tweeted on Saturday. “The problem is that his fixed position as a starter hurts the best player from the final stretch of last season (Ángel Correa) and it contradicts a basic principle of Cholismo: meritocracy.”

Griezmann is 31 now, not 26. He is nowhere near the Ballon d’Or contender or World Cup-winning player of 2018. He plays too slowly, too cautiously, and indirectly for a team whose best passages of attacking play this season have most often occurred when at least one of Correa, Matheus Cunha, or João Félix are on the pitch.

By shoehorning Griezmann into the 11, Cholo Simeone has unfairly disadvantaged at least two members of that aforementioned trio and made his attack much easier to shut down.

It’s clear what a formula, if not the formula, for Atlético’s offensive success looks like. And Antoine Griezmann is not part of that. Simeone seems to be among the last to realize it. Have a look at Griezmann’s statistics in this calendar year, and you tell me in the comments if he deserves an automatic place in this team’s best 11:

Simeone was similarly-slow to realize that Diego Costa was washed-up, continuing to select the big forward well into 2021 — even when it was obvious as early as 2018 that Costa could not stay fit regularly and spent nearly as much time getting suspended as he did missing the net.

Making matters worse was the €8.5 million-per-year contract Costa signed upon returning to Atlético from Chelsea in 2017 — only slightly-less expensive than Griezmann’s rumored annual take-home salary of around €10 million. Costa’s contract became a millstone that, in part, forced Atlético to overhaul the squad entirely in 2019 — leaving the board unable to offer fresh contracts to Rodri, Lucas Hernández, and Thomas Partey.

Rodri (for €70 million) and Lucas (€80m) left Madrid that summer, with Manchester City and Bayern Munich triggering the affordable release clauses in their contracts. Thomas followed the next year, transferring to Arsenal for his €50 million clause.

Leganes v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Santander
Lucas Hernández and Cholo Simeone celebrating Griezmann’s goal from a free kick against Leganés in 2018. Lucas left the club following this season.
Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Atlético’s miserable title defense this season leaves the club in another tricky spot this summer, especially if the team finishes outside LaLiga’s top four (a separate, though related, can of worms). Atleti are said to have interest in renewing all three of Yannick Carrasco, Thomas Lemar, and Jan Oblak. The first is an electric individual talent whose contract is up in 2024, the second is probably this side’s top playmaker, and the third is among the five best goalkeepers on the planet. Lemar and Oblak are on contracts that expire next year.

Atlético also need to bring in multiple new midfielders and defenders, including a first-choice right-back and a quality center-back who can step in when José Giménez and/or Stefan Savić are unavailable (which is frequently). And no summer transfer window would be complete without a pricey new center-forward — reports say Atleti are competing with Premier League clubs to sign Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martínez or Benfica’s Darwin Núñez.

This is quite the laundry list for a team with a salary limit of roughly €175 million, only the third-highest in LaLiga behind Sevilla and new champions Real Madrid. It is difficult to expect Atlético to tick all these boxes in one window without significant sales or player departures. Even after nine consecutive Champions League appearances secured through league position, Atleti’s sell-first stance and careful attention paid to net spend usually makes large investments unpalatable (the João Félix transfer is of course a notable exception).

But by returning Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona, Atlético’s sports management can admit it has at last learned a lesson about bringing back Simeone’s old flames.

By making Griezmann a problem for Barça to solve again and cutting short his two-year loan, Atleti can avoid continuing to pay Griezmann’s huge salary and funneling €40 million into the Camp Nou Spotify coffers after next season — after which Griezmann will be 32 and likely still underperforming relative to his high wages.

With Atlético facing a summer when a tremendous economic effort will be required, sporting director Andrea Berta and chief executives Enrique Cerezo and Miguel Ángel Gil must demonstrate a capacity — however small — to improve as administrators after brokering terrible deals for Costa, Vitolo Machín, and Álvaro Morata before striking the Griezmann agreement last August. Vitolo (loaned to Getafe) and Morata (playing at Juventus) have proven so difficult to move on that they officially remain Atleti players.

For all the good deals Berta has helped to broker — and there have been several over the years — the combination of the club’s bizarre, unpredictable recruitment strategy with Simeone’s highly-specific style means the transfer market misses are rather high-profile. For a club in Atlético’s financial position, these whiffs are hard to stomach.

And if Griezmann stays to play in half Atleti’s games next season, the club will part with €40 million for a player who, at this rate, may not even be serviceable then. It would be scandalously-bad business.

Thankfully, with Griezmann only on loan at the Wanda Metropolitano, Atlético’s leadership can extricate itself from this problem (again) before it is too late. But there was great willingness and a very-public effort to welcome Griezmann back into the fold in the first place, after this team won LaLiga without him in 2021. Factor in Simeone’s great dedication and loyalty to the player, and everything seems to indicate there is no turning back for Atlético.

The longer Griezmann remains in Cholo Simeone’s squad, the more costly the effects will be. The Rojiblancos’ future looks a tad brighter if the club’s hierarchy comes to this realization soon. It’s not too late for Atleti to do the right thing.

History says they will not.

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