Griezmann is at home at Atletico again, looking like LaLiga’s player of the year

Turquoise boots, pink and peroxide hair, fluorescent orange strip, white-hot form. That was Antoine Griezmann last weekend, again, as his Atletico Madrid stuck five past Real Valladolid and maintained the pressure on Real Madrid as to whether they, or Los Rojiblancos, will finish second in LaLiga.

The France international has a rival for the title of the league’s most exciting player, but that’s only because Vinicius Junior is a truly extraordinary talent. There are many extras that argue (convincingly, I think) that Griezman has been, pound for pound, the most thrilling, most enjoyable, must-watch footballer in LaLiga this season.

Right now, he’s a little puff of magic; bang in the sweet spot of his career where he’s daring, happy, endlessly energetic and, evidently, believes there’s nothing he can’t pull off.

Aged 32, and having played right up to the final of the World Cup in midseason (seven extra matches, 538 minutes and a runners-up medal to show for it), Griezmann’s stats reveal that he’s Atleti’s top scorer and top assist provider. With 13 goals and 12 assists, it’s a direct goal contribution for every 119 minutes played in Atleti colours this season.

This despite Atleti risking only playing him for a maximum of 30 minutes in most matches in the first third of the season, robbing him of form, continuity and opportunity to contribute, because they didn’t want to spark the clause that would force them to pay Barcelona full price for his permanent transfer. Even after that October deal which, for a mere €20 million, formally returned him to the club he’d left for €120m only three years earlier, Griezmann was in a weak, confused team in which their legendary coach Diego Simeone was doing as much harm as good.

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Bottom of their Champions League group, they failed to qualify for Europa League football after the new year. There was a stage when they dropped to seventh in LaLiga. European football next season was in some degree of jeopardy.

Until January, Atleti constantly changed system and tactics, shifting stylistically three or four times — in a single match. They were dull, sloppy and far too concerned with pessimism and defending. Even their fanatically loyal crowd started to turn. Then Simeone put his faith in four at the back, and unleashed Griezmann.

A couple of things changed.

Now certain that he was ‘home’ for good, with a contract running until 2026, Griezmann stopped saying ‘sorry’ to the angry Atleti fans who were still grumpy and hurt that he’d left for Barcelona. Instead, he decided that the majority still loved him and that the way to win over the rest was to play brilliantly. Instead of being sheepish and humble, he decided to stick his chest out, to strut, to thrill.

Since sorting out his contract situation, there has only been one stretch when he’s gone three games without either a goal or assist. More importantly, it has been Griezmann’s massive industry, his exceptional vision, his patent sheer joy at playing that have made him infectious and, arguably, LaLiga’s best, most watchable player.

The might David Ginola summed up Griezmann’s impact on Atleti: “Antoine possesses that superb left foot … Above all, he’s a brilliant team player. He never holds back, always asks for the ball. He is very much a product of the Spanish football philosophy and reminds me a lot of [Andres] Iniesta: a player who plays first and foremost with his head; his technical ability is such that, even in the tiniest of spaces, he stays calm and uses the ball brilliantly, making the most difficult passes look easy.”

Whether Griezmann is played at centre-forward, wide left, attacking midfield or second striker, the fact is that he’s ubiquitous. Just as he felt restrained at Barcelona, loyally trying to stick to the left wing in a 4-3-3 system when the very philosophy upon which it was based was falling into complete ruin, he now feels master and commander of all he surveys. He has been liberated.

If he thinks that possession is mired in the area in front of Atleti’s goal, you’ll see him drop deep to provide a passing outlet, to pick up the pieces of someone else’s press, to restart play. If Atleti’s opponents win the ball back near their own penalty area, and start a hard, fast counterattack, Griezmann will unfailingly sprint back, tackle, block, take a booking for the team. He will play as if there were two of him, and he does so at the age of 32.

Fellow countryman and former Real Sociedad coach Raynald Denoueix said, “He grafts like a midfielder but finishes like a striker.” Atleti legend and double winner Kiko said, “Antoine’s as strong as an ox but his touch is as light as a feather.”

Right now, there’s a big marketing campaign from clothing sponsor Mango that is based on all the criticism — sometimes disparaging nastiness — he received either online or from so-called football journalists when his time at Camp Nou went awry. Its mantra is: “There is only one way to silence the noise … Move Forward.”

He’s done that. Brilliantly.

The campaign is based on ignoring, and then silencing, the doubters and haters. Using their anger as fuel. Fine. But I like to think that there are other inspirations for this likeable, hugely successful athlete.

He’s a racehorse owner, a sport that embedded its passion in him when he was just a kid and he and his father would go to the nearby track so that little Antoine could get an ice cream and his dad could bet four or five euros a race. His aim, one day, is to own a Group 1 horse, an elite stallion that can win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe or the Epsom Derby. He deeply admires the men and women he hires to pilot his current horses — often to victory.

“I truly admire the jockeys, because their life and profession is very difficult, it’s one which demands a lot from your body,” Griezmann told me for Champions League Weekly. “I was speaking to a jockey, who told me that he was in Marseille for some races, but needed to travel to Paris, and in the car, he had the heating to its maximum, to sweat and burn fat, and to prevent himself from gaining weight. Then he had to get on the horse and do around six races in the afternoon, which is not only physically, but mentally tiring.

“They have to weigh themselves before getting on the horse each race. They have so many restrictions. They spend days without eating or drinking water, because they can’t risk gaining weight, all of which will only make it much more painful when they have to get on the horse; their knees will hurt a lot during the race. I respect them so much.”

Irrespective of his light-hearted, nice-guy image, Griezmann loves the tough sportsmen and women. He loves those who work until they simply can’t do any more — for victory. He adores those who sacrifice not just for wages, glory, fame or even trophies, but for the outright love of what they do.

Another example is his devotion to basketball and its stars. Griezmann loves the trash talk that abounds, the constant trying to get in one another’s heads, but knows football is too prissy for that to translate. What he does equate from the sport he most loves to the one he plays best is the need to create space and to tolerate pain and exhaustion.

“It must be tough for them to play every two or three days, travelling from … New York to Minnesota or California for a game,” Griezmann said. “That must be very tough mentally, as well as physically. They often clash, and are susceptible to knee and heel injuries, which is why you frequently see them with ice packs in every game.

“When you watch basketball on TV, the court seems incredibly large, but when you are courtside you realise how small it all is. You have to find ways to create space for the shooter to score.

“Ultimately, that’s what we try to do in football, but more so from corners or set plays or a free kick. We look to create space for whoever is going to shoot. There are things you can learn from basketball and apply to football, especially when it comes to having patience in those key moments of a match and keeping a cool head in order to think properly about a play and execute it well.”

Ladies and gentlemen, Antoine Griezmann: LaLiga’s player of the season who keeps moving forward, keeps seeking creative space, keeps entertaining us.

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