Right now, Atletico Madrid fans don’t know what to think. Antoine Griezmann could stay or go, and they could be on the brink of the same old story. Diego Simeone has transformed the club over the past seven years; they are no longer the play thing of their illustrious neighbours, Real Madrid, but a fearsome winning animal, one that will never say die. One La Liga title in 2014, at a time when it seemed impossible to break the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly,, and two Europa League wins, including last season, have cemented their progress under ‘El Cholo’, while another two Champions League finals, both to their neighbours, have driven them on.
But as Griezmann is continuously linked with a move away, Atleti are yet to complete the shift into an elite football club. The very best do not sell unless they want to, and while the France international may end up staying at the Wanda Metropolitano, he has flirted with the idea of departing in the past; last summer, a move to Manchester United failed to materialise because of the FIFA transfer ban imposed on Los Rojiblancos. It was good to see that he cared, but there has always been a feeling that he has another destination, just like Fernando Torres, just like Sergio Agüero, just like Radamel Falcao and just like Diego Costa. The latter and the former returned ‘home’, in their own words, but not before sensing they may have to leave to truly taste the big time.
Whether Griezmann stays or goes, steps are being made. Star names do not interest Simeone on their own, they must show they can fight and play in his way; Griezmann has been moulded in Madrid, developing from a flamboyant winger into a deadly striker over the last four years. One major signing is already said to be in the pipeline regardless of what happens with him; Monaco winger Thomas Lemar is one of the world’s rising stars, linked with Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona, and though he is currently in Russia alongside Griezmann preparing for the World Cup, he is reportedly on the brink of a move to Atletico. Paying £65million for his services, beating off all the competition, shows the direction Simeone still wants to go.
His future has been the subject of much speculation for almost as long as his reign, which began in 2011. Admittance that he wants to manage Inter who, like Atletico, he played for in the 1990s, reports he has been learning English and the fact he reduced the length of a contract he signed some years ago are all factors in the continuous rumours; yet, he still has that fire, the desire to succeed exactly where he is. Constantly having to sell his biggest names has been a challenge to overcome, but now, if they can keep Griezmann and add Lemar, Atletico could become a regular fixture in title races and finals, rather than an underdog that finds a way to win. Some may suggest they are already there, but their slip up in the Champions League last season, falling at the group stage, shows they still have some work to to become one of the best.
Lemar is the perfect player for Simeone; strong, skilful, direct but, most importantly, mouldable. Atleti need an injection of pace and impetus in wide areas, having seen Yannick Carrasco and Nico Gaitan depart for China in January. It will be interesting to see, once the deal is complete, whether Lemar can adapt to the rigid nature of the 4-4-2 formation Simeone likes to play; it is so flat that often Koke, a Spain international central midfielder, plays on the left. Carrasco and Gaitan, like Lemar, are more attacking wide players, and it is understandable that the doubt lies in whether he can fit in better than they did.
Whether he can or not, the fact Simeone has continued to progress the club shows his true ability as a manager. Tactically on point, mentally strong with an ability to create a siege mentality, Cholo’s main achievement has been the longevity of his success. It has been assumed that the demands on his team would be too much and, like Pep Guardiola at Barcelona in 2012, he would have to leave to give himself and the players a rest. There have been some concerning signs along the way, they started last season poorly, but they keep reinventing themselves. Perhaps they need to push on, but others have been in their position and buckled; signing Lemar shows they mean business.
Antoine Griezmann could leave Atletico Madrid this summer, but they are used to losing their key players. If he stays, the reportedly imminent arrival of Thomas Lemar could help the club reach a truly elite level under Diego Simeone who, as of yet, is going nowhere.