Atletico Madrid are not a team of stars like Barcelona or Real Madrid, but Antoine Griezmann is emerging as one of the world's best players under Diego Simeone, writes Nick Wright…
Atletico Madrid's La Liga title charge has been built on an astonishing defensive record of eight goals conceded in 21 games, but where would they be without Antoine Griezmann?
The French forward went some way to answering that question with a series of uncharacteristic misses in Sunday's stalemate with Sevilla. The goalless draw allowed Barcelona to reclaim top spot, and for Atletico it was reminder of just how much they have come to depend on their talisman. In their Copa del Rey exit against Celta Vigo on Wednesday, Griezmann-dependencia reared its head again.
It's little wonder expectations are so high. After scoring 25 times in 54 appearances in an impressive debut campaign in 2014/15, Griezmann's development has followed a steep upward curve this season. The 24-year-old has netted four times as many La Liga goals as any of his Atletico team-mates with 12, and he is only seven short of his overall tally for last season after 29 games.
In La Liga, Atletico have won all 10 of the games in which Griezmann has scored and only five of the 11 in which he hasn't. In all competitions, Wednesday's 3-2 defeat to Celta Vigo was the first time since April they have failed to win a game in which he has found the net. To put it simply, Griezmann makes the difference.
"I have said previously that Antoine Griezmann will be considered one of the top five players in the world by the end of this year - and I still think things are going that way," says Sky Sports' Spanish football expert Guillem Balague. "He is so crucial to Atletico Madrid. When he doesn't score the first goal he scores the crucial second when the opponent thinks they have a chance."
La Liga goals since 2014/15
|Cristiano Ronaldo||Real Madrid||64|
|Antoine Griezmann||Atletico Madrid||34|
Since Griezmann's £24m arrival at Atletico from Real Sociedad in the summer of 2014, only Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar have scored more goals in La Liga. His shot conversion rate of 30.37 per cent across the two seasons is the best in Spain, and the numbers are all the more impressive given the transformation he has undergone in that period.
Griezmann was already a prolific scorer when he joined Atletico, but most of his 52 goals for Sociedad came from wide positions. With Diego Costa and David Villa departing Atletico that summer, however, Diego Simeone needed reinforcements up front. In Griezmann, he saw positional flexibility and striking potential.
Simeone's belief has been rewarded, with Griezmann's speed, directness and predatory finishing instincts making him devastatingly effective at the tip of Atletico's attack. His movement is outstanding, and he is also surprisingly strong in the air and capable of holding the ball up despite his diminutive frame.
Initially, though, he struggled with the adaption - and the demands of Simeone, his new manager. "At first I found it difficult with El Cholo [Simeone] because he was so different from what I experienced at La Real and France," Griezmann said last season. "He asks a lot of his players and demands a lot of intensity. If your guard is down even a bit in training, he tells you to put extra effort in quickly. He works with a different mentality to my previous coaches, but now I'm enjoying it."
Griezmann only scored once in his first 12 appearances for Atletico and was frequently used as a substitute in the first half of the campaign, but it wasn't long before he adjusted to his new side's high-intensity style. The goals duly followed, and he hasn't looked back since.
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"Antoine has grown tremendously," said Simeone in September. "He's a young guy with great enthusiasm and he's eager to make progress. He has the natural ability to get to the top, of that I am in no doubt."
Having stepped up in the absence of Diego Costa in 2014/15, Griezmann has had to shoulder even more responsibility this season. Atletico hoped the arrivals of Jackson Martinez and Luciano Vietto might lighten the load on their No 7, but between them they have only mustered three La Liga goals. Fernando Torres and Angel Correa have fared little better.
It's not just goals Griezmann brings, either. Simeone demands relentless work-rate on and off the ball from his players, and the statistics show Griezmann has succeeded in increasing his defensive output this season as well as becoming even more potent in attack.
Griezmann's defensive improvement
|La Liga 2014/15||La Liga 2015/16|
|0.8||Tackles per game||1.8|
|0.4||Interceptions per game||1.1|
|0.2||Clearances per game||0.9|
So what now for the Frenchman? Chelsea and Manchester United are among a host of top clubs reportedly monitoring his progress, but Griezmann has expressed little interesting in leaving. "When the coach tells everyone that you are one of the best players in the world, it gives you even more desire to stay," he said recently. "I don't look elsewhere and I think about it even less."
There's a lot more to come from Griezmann, but he can show he already belongs on the same stage as Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar when Atletico head to the Nou Camp to face Barcelona on Saturday. If they are to reclaim top spot, Simeone will need his star man at his brilliant best.
Follow Barcelona v Atletico Madrid in the Sky Sports live blog at 3pm on Saturday and re-live the action from 5.15pm on Sky Sports 3HD