Antoine Griezmann was often out of breath when first playing at Atletico, now he takes breath away

Griezmann was often out of breath when first at Atletico, now he takes the breath away

29/01/2016 at 15:54Updated 29/01/2016 at 17:26

When Antoine Griezmann first joined Atletico, coach Diego Simeone was unsure of him. Now the Frenchman is his team’s biggest attacking talent and a huge threat to Barcelona on Saturday, writes Graham Ruthven

The Madrid press made their mind up on Antoine Griezmann very quickly. “An Atletico Madrid player in everything but style,” they wrote in the months following the Frenchman’s record €30 million switch from Real Sociedad to the Vicente Calderon. Worse than that though, Diego Simeone didn’t seem too convinced either.

The Frenchman, considered one of La Liga’s brightest young talents, just wasn’t the right fit for Atletico. Ideologically, Griezmann was too much of a luxury embellishment for European football’s most efficient and structured outfit. Simeone didn’t even trust him enough to play 90 minutes, invariably hooking off the forward not long after half-time.

Much has changed since then, however. After last season’s somewhat underwhelming title defence, Atletico Madrid have now been recalibrated over the summer and are once again threatening to upset Spanish football’s natural order. And Griezmann has come to be the figure that defines them.

Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann celebrates his goal with coach Diego Simeone. REUTERS/Andrea Comas

Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann celebrates his goal with coach Diego Simeone. REUTERS/Andrea ComasReuters

La Liga’s increasingly tight title race could unravel for the first time this weekend, as Barcelona host Atletico Madrid in a top-of-the-table clash at the Camp Nou. With Luis Enrique’s side currently the closest thing football has to a circus act, focus will be on what Lionel Messi and co. can conjure up, but a closer watch should be given to Griezmann. Such is his current form, those watching might have no option but to pay him their full attention.

The 24-year-old has netted eight times in his last 10 club appearances, carrying Atletico Madrid over a winter spell that proved more challenging than results and the league table indicates. But Griezmann is about much more than just goal threat, conducting the electricity which illuminates the capital club’s frontline. Without him, there would be no shimmer at all. Without him, Atletico Madrid would be a decidedly dull proposition.

Simeone is credited, not least by the player himself, for Griezmann’s stylistic and psychological transformation over the past year or so. “Simeone has great rigour, discipline and intensity in workouts, it changed me completely,” Griezmann explained. “For the first six months of the championship [in 2014-15], I struggled. I was making ends meet and in the match it was pretty complicated.

" "I worked, I worked hard and I am now a major player for the club.""

But whilst Griezmann has undoubtedly adapted his style and identity as a player to suit that of Simeone’s, his true worth can be found in his exception. Just like Messi is to Barcelona, Griezmann is Atletico Madrid’s wildcard, giving his team something no other player can. Simeone might demand a certain degree of defensive fibre and positional discipline from the Frenchman, but at the same time he is afforded a little more freedom than the rest of his team-mates. His talent dictates that.

Saturday’s match at the Camp Nou could have a more profound meaning for Griezmann. With the era-defining personal duel between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo perhaps showing signs of winding down for the first time, football is on the look-out for its next truly legendary player. Gareth Bale, Neymar, Robert Lewandowski and Luis Suarez have all been pushed forward as candidates - but Griezmann also deserves a mention.

Barcelona's Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez (2L) celebrates with Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (L) and Barcelona's Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic (R)

Barcelona's Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez (2L) celebrates with Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (L) and Barcelona's Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic (R)AFP

The Frenchman isn’t always recognised as a bona fide member of the sport’s elite, but he belongs in such company. Saturday presents him with the chance to align himself with Messi, Neymar, Suarez and the rest, and perhaps even outshine them in their own arena. It might be slightly early to make a play for next year’s Ballon d’Or, but Griezmann can at least put down a marker against the competition. This could be his coming out party.

Yet those who have measured Atletico’s development this season against that of the remarkable title-winning side of 2013/14 will already be well aware of Griezmann’s quality. Once a mercurial talent often found languid on the peripheries during his days at Real Sociedad, now he is the main act and existential lynchpin for one of European football’s best teams.

It’s undeniably true that Griezmann for the first few weeks and months of his Atletico Madrid career found himself playing catch-up. He initially toiled in the more central role Simeone envisaged for him, struggling with the physical and mental demands of the Argentine’s philosophy. Early on it was a common sight to spot Griezmann catching his breath in between Simeone’s calls for him to track back.

Now, however, the Frenchman is only catching the breath of others. He has become a relentless force of nature under Simeone’s charge, and the drive behind Atletico Madrid’s title challenge this season. It’s doubtful he’ll be subbed off on Saturday.