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Antoine Griezmann Is Really Fucking Good Again, Even If Atlético Madrid Isn’t

Atletico Madrid's French forward Antoine Griezmann celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Spanish league football match between Valencia CF and Club Atletico de Madrid at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia on November 7, 2021.
Photo by Jose Jordan/AFP via Getty Images

After spending two years in confinement with Barcelona, it has understandably taken a while for Antoine Griezmann to reacclimate himself to freedom. His first few weeks back with Atlético Madrid saw him spending a lot of time stretching his legs and aimlessly ambling about, as if trying to remember what it felt like to be a team’s liberated protagonist rather than a constrained supporting piece. But if there was any doubt whether Griezmann was still capable of the feats of individualistic greatness he so regularly performed at his pre-Barça best, presumably this wonderstrike on Sunday served to dispel them all:

Everything about the goal was Griezmann at his best. There was the defensive tracking and the perfectly timed tackle at the start of the move, which displayed the affinity for out-of-possession work that has always made the Frenchman such an outlier amongst the game’s attacking geniuses. There was his unrivaled reading of space and guidance of counters, which allow him to be a terror in transition despite his lack of elite speed. Then there was that ridiculous toe-bash of a finish, which speaks for itself. Maybe even more impressive and encouraging than all the technical stuff was the confidence, seen in the swiftness of his decision to eschew the safer pass and instead go it alone, and in the clearly pleased but unsurprised look on his face during the celebration. Yeah, that was amazing, his face seemed to say, but amazing is just what I do.

The goal on Sunday was the fourth time Griezmann has found the back of the net in his last five appearances for Atlético. Prior to this current stretch, Griezmann had only scored once in seven matches since leaving Barcelona. Hopefully his poor start to life back in Madrid was just him relearning how to run with the Blaugrana shackles removed from his feet, and the rest of the season looks more like this, more like him.

Unfortunately for Atleti, Griezmann’s upturn in form hasn’t coincided with the team’s performances as a whole. The past month has been a bad one. Since returning from the October international break, Atlético has won only a single match in six outings. Unlike what you’d normally expect from a Diego Simeone team, it’s the defense that’s been the problem. Griezmann and Co. have gotten the team 12 goals in that span, while the defense has coughed up 12 more, including two-stoppage time goals on Sunday that erased the good vibes of the Grizi strike and let Valencia escape with a 3–3 draw.

It shouldn’t be like this, not for Atleti. On paper, the Colchoneros have far and away the strongest squad in La Liga. Coming off Simeone’s second title-winning campaign, Atlético saw its chief rivals in Spain either fail to meaningfully improve (see: Real Madrid not signing Kylian Mbappé) or decline precipitously (see: Barcelona losing its best player, then handing its second-best player over to Atleti, and not being able to replace either of them). In contrast, Atlético added Rodrigo De Paul and Griezmann to what was already a championship roster. Spanish soccer might be in a down period right now, but if any La Liga club has the raw materials to build a truly formidable team, it’s Atlético Madrid.

But if Griezmann has been in a state of transition this season, then Atlético has been, too. The squad may be loaded, but it’s also ridiculously top-heavy, with tons of attacking types and too few defensive-minded players. After spending so many years designing his teams first and foremost around his defensive principles, Simeone is having some trouble creating an attack-first team that is still balanced on the other end. The result has been a relatively mediocre start to the league season, where the club with the best and deepest roster in the country currently sits in just fourth place, and some awful performances in the Champions League. It’s definitely not too late for the club to turn things around, especially not in a league as average as Spain’s. But it is about time for Atlético to start showing hints of becoming the great team its array of talents deserve.

To become the best team it can be, Atlético will need Griezmann to maintain his improved play and renewed confidence. The team will also need to figure out how to pair this version of Griezmann with its other outrageous talent, João Félix. Griezmann and Félix have the makings of one of the world’s most fearsome and entertaining attacking duos, but they’ve only rarely gotten the chance to play together. Simeone seems to see the pair more as substitutes for each other rather than compliments, which has limited their shared time on the pitch. The choice does make some sense. Both players are natural second strikers who prefer to play behind a focal center forward like Luis Suárez, and to maintain defensive security, you can see why the manager would drop one of them in exchange for a less creative but harder working player.

Nevertheless, Griezmann and Félix have the sort of talent that can transcend rigid notions of structure and safety. For proof, the team only needs to rewatch its blistering first-half showing at home against Liverpool, where an attack led by the Frenchman and the Portuguese torched the opposing defense every time they combined. The promise of this goal alone should be enough to convince Simeone to give his star duo every opportunity to recreate this type of unstoppable synergy:

One of the best things about Griezmann is how well he plays with others. He is a selfless player who delights in supporting and adapting to his teammates, using his considerable skills to boost those around them more so than to show off the heights of his own. Barcelona abused this trait somewhat, making Grizi’s contributions so subservient to Lionel Messi’s that the Frenchman’s were barely visible. Atlético Madrid has the chance to do better. The team has already recovered the best Griezmann. Now it’s a matter of helping him uncover the best Félix, too, and creating a partnership that adds up to much more than the sum of its parts.

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