Griezmann’s strange substitute appearances and Barcelona’s Atletico stand-off

“Antoine understands Atletico’s values, for sure,” says Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak. “He left for two years, but when he returned he was very happy to come back with us. He is doing everything he can to help the team and the club to get the results we want.”

Oblak was speaking to The Athletic at the Civitas Metropolitano stadium for last week’s premiere of the new Amazon Prime documentary: Another Way of Living: Atletico de Madrid.

Antoine Griezmann is the most prominent Atletico player throughout the four-part series and attended the screening at their Estadio Metropolitano along with his team-mates, but hurried quickly along the red carpet without making eye contact with the reporters.

The France international was clearly not keen to talk about his situation — he has, rather strangely, not started a game this season but keeps getting introduced as a substitute just after the hour mark.

This has come about due to the complex loan arrangement under which Griezmann returned to Atletico from Barcelona in the summer of 2021. Nobody disputes that this deal included a clause that would make the move permanent in 2023 for €40million (£35m; $40.1m). But differing interpretations of the fine print of that clause, which involves playing a certain number of minutes in a certain number of games, means the two clubs are now locked into an increasingly uncomfortable dispute.

We’ll explain this contract situation in more detail as we go, but for now, the basic position is that Atletico think that by playing Griezmann for less than 45 minutes per game, they can pressure Barcelona into accepting a lower price to sign him permanently next summer. 

Nobody at the club has said that publicly, but his unusual position is an open secret and captain Koke addressed his team’s best-paid player being allowed to feature for at most a third of all their games at the premiere.

“Antoine gives everything, whether he plays 60, 30, 90 or 5 minutes on the pitch,” Koke said. “Every player who puts on this jersey gives everything he has. We are happy to have him here, a decisive player, scoring goals.”

The 31-year-old has shown remarkable patience so far in not making more of this issue and continuing to make an important contribution for his team.

Still, a solution has to be found over the coming weeks and the January transfer window now looks like the deadline, at which point one solution may be him leaving to join another club permanently.

This is how it came about, and what happens next.

Early in episode one of the new documentary series, Griezmann is talking about another transfer deadline day, when he was on duty with the France national team.

“I was in my room and my teammates were all asking me if the deal had been closed,” Griezmann says. “Some were congratulating me and I was going, ‘No no, it’s not done yet, don’t jinx it. Nothing is for sure yet.’ From 10pm until midnight, when the deal was sealed, I was in bed, feeling every possible emotion. In the end, I shouted with emotion. At 12:01, I was very happy.”

This was 31 August 2021, when Griezmann’s return to Atletico after two difficult seasons at Barcelona was sealed at the last moment. All summer, Barcelona’s sporting director Mateu Alemany had wanted him off the wage bill, but he made it clear he would only leave for one club. Atletico already had lots of forwards including Joao Felix and Luis Suarez, but Simeone convinced CEO Angel Gil Marin it was worth making a big push to be reunited with a player and person he respects and identifies with closely.

Griezmann was so keen to return that he accepted a 40 per cent pay cut, down to €10million a year. That was still the highest salary at Atletico (apart from Simeone’s) and he also had to deal with some team-mates and fans being unhappy about how he had left for Camp Nou. The tension in the air on his return is clear in the documentary.

“I haven’t been sleeping well since all this started,” he tells the cameras as he gets out of his car at Atletico’s training ground on his first day back. “I hope I can sleep peacefully now that I’m finally here.”

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Griezmann with Angel Correa and Joao Felix at the documentary premiere (Photo: Atletico Madrid)

His exit two years before still hangs over his official presentation as an Atletico player again. Club president Enrique Cerezo jokes on camera that “you should have listened to Erika”, a nod to Erika Choperena, Griezmann’s wife, having advised him not to leave for Barca in his own “decision” documentary back in 2018. The player reacts with a shy, nervous smile.

The usually open character was clearly inhibited as he settled back into life at Atletico. Team-mates who knew him well could see he was nervous. He was so keen not to stand out that he cut off the elaborate ponytail grown during his time at Camp Nou. Knowing a significant number of fans at the stadium were against him affected his performances on the pitch. In his first five La Liga games, he did not even have one shot on target.

“I understand some people are still not happy with my presence here, and I try to work at 10,000 per cent to turn that around,” Griezmann says in the doc. “I am in the process of making people fall in love with me again.”

That process kept hitting setbacks. He scored two excellent goals against Liverpool in the Champions League, then was sent off for an inadvertent high challenge. Three goals and two assists in five La Liga games through October and November were followed by a niggling hamstring problem he just could not shake.

A problem was the difficulty of returning to the punishing training regime at Atletico after two seasons of much less physically demanding sessions at Barcelona. After returning to play in January, he lasted 34 minutes before limping off again. It was by far the longest injury issue of his entire career.

“I was devastated, sad, to be again away from my team-mates and my football,” Griezmann tells the cameras. “Feeling useless is the worst that can happen.”

The doc is co-produced by Atleti Studios, which is funded by La Liga’s CVC money, and the makers were well aware of who would be the most high-profile star and storyline of the season.

In a typical Atletico twist, the reconnection with the club’s fans comes in a game the team loses. After coming agonisingly close to pushing Manchester City to extra time in the Champions League quarter-finals, the supporters and players remain after the final whistle to share an emotional quarter of an hour together.

“Atletico’s supporters are special,” Griezmann says in the doc. “They are unique, that is why I was in tears, and I enjoyed it. Even though I was sad, I really enjoyed that moment.”

He plays in each of the last 13 La Liga games, as the team improves and secures third place in the final La Liga table. But he doesn’t score in any of them, leading to more awkwardness as he reacts to applause from the stands as he is subbed off in the final home game of the season.

“I left quickly as I thought, not yet, I don’t deserve this applause,” he says. “I hadn’t scored a goal for 14 games, it was not the moment. A day will come when I get that ovation at the Wanda, deserved for the work I am going to do on the pitch and the goals. Then I will gladly accept it.”

This summer, Griezmann did get to put in a full pre-season under Atletico’s ultra-demanding fitness coach Oscar “El Profe” Ortega. But whether he would ever have another reception at the stadium was not clear because the complexity of the loan deal agreed in extremis 12 months previously was now a problem.

At the time, Barcelona’s announcement of that deal seemed straightforward. “The Madrid club will pay the player’s wages and there is a compulsory permanent transfer clause,” they said. It also wished Griezmann the best for his future. It was a loan deal, but there was no expectation he would ever play for Barcelona again.

Over the following weeks, details of the “permanent transfer clause” leaked out. Atletico would pay €40million in the summer of 2023, once Griezmann had played 45 minutes in 50 per cent of their games for which he was available (not injured or suspended). If he played fewer than 50 per cent of those games, then Atletico would not pay anything.

This was not a consideration last season, as Griezmann played 80 per cent of the games he was available for. Even though there had been issues with his form and fitness, Simeone still considered him a key member of the team. So it followed that he would again play most of Atletico’s games in 2022-23 and the deal would go through. Barcelona were expecting this to happen.

However, during this summer, Atletico were feeling their own financial pressures. Their wage bill of €200million is too high, especially after the return of Alvaro Morata and Saul Niguez from loans at Juventus and Chelsea. There was a feeling that €40million for a player who will by then be 32 was quite a lot.

Atletico’s Gil Marin contacted Barcelona’s Alemany during this summer’s transfer window to suggest the negotiation of a lower fee. Atletico felt they had leverage, given all the scrambling Barca were doing to raise money to strengthen their squad. And nobody at Camp Nou wants to even think about the idea of Griezmann returning on his previous wages (€21million a year before tax). That would make him just as big a problem as Frenkie de Jong. But Barca did not cede and this year’s deadline passed without any change in the situation.

The Catalan club’s stance was that the deal could not be renegotiated as the clause has already been fulfilled. Griezmann featuring in 80 per cent of the available games in 2021-22 triggered automatically the requirement to pay the full €40million next summer. For them, Griezmann is no longer their player, no matter how many minutes he plays in an Atletico shirt in 2022-23. “We think he’s an Atletico player,” said Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez last week.

Atletico’s stance is obviously different. They say the only important calculation is how many games Griezmann plays 45 minutes in over the complete two years. He played a lot last year, but so far this season has added zero new games to his total. If he keeps only coming off the bench in the second half of games, the Metropolitano hierarchy see themselves as free of any obligations.

Barca are sticking to their side, to the point of asking their legal team to prepare a legal demand to force Atletico to pay the €40million, no matter what happens this season. It could all end up as a case in a commercial arbitration court, La Liga president Javier Tebas said last Friday.

The situation has also put a spotlight on the not-always-comfortable relationship between Simeone and the Atletico board. Club president Enrique Cerezo has repeatedly said in public that Simeone can pick or not pick any player. But El Cholo has gone along with a plan hatched above him in the hierarchy. “I am a good club man and I always will be,” he has repeated over recent weeks when pressed for his thoughts on the situation.

Griezmann is in an awkward position but he has been willing to accept what is deemed best for Atletico as an institution. “You spin the globe and stop it right here, this is the best place for me, for my family, where I am happiest,” he says in the doc. “I feel proud of being a part of this club.”

It is remarkable how calmly such a high-profile player, a World Cup winner who has been on the podium at the Ballon d’Or awards, has accepted being put at the centre of such an embarrassing situation.

Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid

Simeone is a huge admirer of Griezmann but has stuck to the approach of starting him on the bench (Photo: Getty Images)

“It is what it is, it’s out of my hands,” he said after scoring in Atletico’s 2-1 Champions League win over Porto on September 9, the only time he has spoken in public this season. “I’m grateful to God for being here. My family is happy, I of course want more, but I am going to give everything I have in the minutes I have. I feel like a club man, I am happy here, and I just want to play here and give everything for the club, for el Cholo and for the fans.”

Atletico believe that, by putting up a united front, they can force Barcelona to drop their price. A source familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named due to its sensitivity, pointed out that Barcelona last summer accepted a deal to make Philippe Coutinho’s move to Aston Villa permanent for half the sum mentioned in the Brazilian’s initial loan agreement.

However it works out, a solution has to be found soon, as Griezmann is on course to go to the World Cup with France in November without having started one club game this season.

If the dispute is not resolved, then an option would be for Griezmann to move again, perhaps even as soon as January. Manchester United were one of a number of Premier League clubs to inquire about him during last summer’s transfer window. The player at that point was only focused on staying at Atletico and did not listen to any other options, but everyone’s patience is getting tried at the moment.

On the pitch, the plan did not seem to cause too many problems for Atletico through the first month of the season. Centre-forward Morata started the season scoring goals, while supporting striker Joao Felix gave three assists on the opening day against Getafe and generally looked in excellent nick. Griezmann scored three goals in the first four games as an impact sub, even while often being used in a new deeper midfield role.

By coming off the bench to find the net in the win at home to Porto, he extended his club-record goals in the Champions League to 26 in 59 games in the competition. Simeone said that night with a smile: “I love him a lot and he is one of the most important players in the entire history of Atletico Madrid. He gives us a lot in the minutes he plays, whether 32, 36 or 15. He needs to be strong mentally and stick to the path we believe in at the moment.”

As each game goes by though, the idea of such a self-imposed restriction becomes more difficult for all involved. On Tuesday night at Bayer Leverkusen, Griezmann ran on as usual just past the hour mark for his 300th Atletico game, but had less influence, his team losing to two late goals at the other end. “When Griezmann is on the pitch, we play better,” said Simeone after that game, with more of a grimace than a smile.

Sunday’s La Liga “derbi” against Real Madrid is now Atletico’s biggest game of the season so far. Title holders Real are already five points ahead of their neighbours in the table. A victory for Atletico would put them right into the early title race, while a defeat would make any type of challenge for the trophy pretty unlikely already.

Griezmann has five goals in 10 La Liga derbis, including hitting Atletico’s only goal in both meetings last season. Can Simeone really leave him on the bench again, given the vital importance of the fixture? But could he really change tack and put him into the team, with such a huge spotlight now on the situation?

It seems like such a dilemma could only really happen at Atletico.

“It’s another way of understanding life, a special way,” as Oblak says. “It is difficult to explain it, but you notice it, you feel it when you are inside the club, or when you support the club. People outside cannot understand very well what it is like. Nothing is easy in life, and this club always fights for things, as you have to in life.”

(Top photo: Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

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Griezmann’s strange substitute appearances and Barcelona’s Atletico stand-off

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