5:00 AM ET
Sid LoweSpain writer
The time was 23:59:40. There were 20 seconds of the transfer window to go when Atletico Madrid completed the deal that brought Antoine Griezmann “home” from Barcelona, or so it goes. It was late, anyway. Too late, some said. Just in time, though LaLiga said. At 1 a.m., they released a statement insisting the deal had been registered in their system — and, yes, it really is called LaLiga Manager — before the deadline. There had been no extension, no holding back time. At 1:22 a.m., half an hour after confirming that Saul Niguez was going to Chelsea, Atletico finally announced the signing. Welcome back, Antoine.
It is what he wanted. Well, sort of.
This wasn’t what Griezmann had planned, and not the way he’d imagined it when he signed two years before, but it was the best way out. It shouldn’t have come to this, even though it was always possible that it would, right from the very start. And having come to this, having reached this point, he needed a way out. They all did. This was what Barcelona wanted, too; more than what they wanted, it was what they needed. And once the club had decided that it was better to let go, he was sure — in so much as he was sure of anything — that he wanted to go back to Atletico, to a place where he would feel wanted, one where the team might even be better than the one he is leaving.
Quite how wanted at this point remains to be seen. Some fans will have doubts, of course, burned by the way he left in the first place. And yet, wounds heal with goals and the generosity he’s never lacked, and Atletico know better than anyone how good he can be. It’s not like things went badly the last time they took a striker from Barcelona for free, either. The last two times, in fact.
— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) September 8, 2021
And one thing’s for sure: Diego Simeone knows. Supposedly unsentimental, Atletico’s manager does have a nostalgic streak that often sees him go back to those he knows, and he wanted Griezmann back, convincing him to return to a family where he had felt so much part of it. There was comfort there, waiting.
At the Camp Nou, somehow, he never really did. Even at his presentation, he was saying: “If I have to say sorry, I will do it on the pitch.” After his departure, he published a note to fans saying thanks for the support he hadn’t always felt; saying he was “proud” to have been one of them, which somehow he never really was either; and admitting that he was leaving “sad” at not having been able to enjoy them more “in the stands,” a remark that was probably about more than just the wide, empty spaces the pandemic brought.
Griezmann never entirely found his place at Barcelona, certainly not like he’d imagined or like he had at Atletico. Now he leaves just as he might have done when, at last, the conditions could have suited him. Except, of course, that the economic conditions had become dramatic, eclipsing all else, and a lot has been lost along the way.
Griezmann arrived at Barcelona for €120 million plus add-ons. He departs for free, on a two-year loan. A clause in the agreement means that if he plays more than 50% of the games in his second season, Atletico will be obliged to pay €40m to finance a permanent move, although those kinds of non-negotiable deals have a habit of becoming negotiable after all.
That’s how desperate it has become for Barcelona, even with Lionel Messi leaving. There is no fee for at least two years, but Barcelona still had €72m in amortisation remaining on Griezmann’s signing and letting him go will save them a total figure, once bonuses are factored in, not that far off €20m a year. In all, it may be worth €100m to them.
They may also believe that they’ve finally cut their losses in purely footballing terms, that it was time to let go. His departure certainly has been largely unlamented, except as an expression of the gravity of the crisis at the Camp Nou. The Barcelona president Joan Laporta said this week that Griezmann was “not the player we needed,” just at the point at which he might have been. Laporta also said “he could have given more.” That was opportunistic — self-justifying, too — but not entirely unjust.
Griezmann leaves having scored 35 goals and provided 19 assists in 102 games. There have been important goals too: he opened the scoring 19 times, and nine times his goals put Barcelona in the lead. He’s not failed, exactly. But he has not been a success either — not really. At least not an unqualified one. It’s not that bad, but it’s not that good. Not as good as it should have been.
This is a player, it is sometimes forgotten, that came as one of the very best in the world, a man who that summer became a world champion. Who genuinely was a candidate for Ballon d’Or. During his deliberations, when he was trying to decide whether to join Barcelona, his thought process broadcast on a documentary called “The Decision,” an obsession was revealed: to win the Champions League. He had lost a final and, he clearly feared, a one-off opportunity with Atletico; at Barcelona, he would get another chance.
Julien Laurens questions why Barcelona look set to improve a direct rival with nothing in return for Antoine Griezmann.
In “The Decision,” Griezmann’s sister tells him that any successes he has at Atletico would be his; any he has at Barcelona would be Messi’s. But he doesn’t even have much success to share. In the two years he was there, European elimination has come with an 8-2 defeat against Bayern and a 5-1 aggregate loss against PSG. He has won just one trophy: the Copa del Rey. The team he left behind are league champions and that Messi question has always been there, that sense of place, of fit.
When Griezmann scored his first Barcelona goal, he threw confetti in the air, imitating LeBron James. He said of his goal, a lovely curler into the net, that “I had seen Messi do it.” It has always felt like at some level, there was something in that phrase. That day, Messi was watching from the stands, but most other days Griezmann would have to find accommodation alongside him. He had joined maybe the only club in the world where the man playing in his position — off the right, off the front — was better than him, maybe the best player there has ever been.
Griezmann had also joined the club a year late, having originally turned them down — and in turning them down in that documentary. He had joined them for a huge fee, and he’d done so instead of Neymar, the man Messi kept saying he wanted. “If we hadn’t signed Griezmann, we would have signed Neymar,” Eric Abidal would say. Griezmann came apologetically, aware that he had to make it up to them, but he didn’t entirely succeed in doing so. He scored 15 and 20 goals — lower than in any of his seasons at Atletico, and while playing in a far more offensive team.
Some are gorgeous, genuinely off the scale brilliant, but few stand-out as huge moments, although it would be unfair to overlook his opener in the cup final.
More than that, beyond the goals, the stats, and the metrics by which to measure him there’s something less tangible, the inescapable feeling that he didn’t really fit. That Griezmann was good, yeah, and there could be no faulting his attitude, but he was not that good. He was never truly able to find himself, right to the end, and didn’t get all that much help in doing so. And he knew it — all too well.
Griezmann not unjustly told Jorge Valdano in one interview: “I have had three managers in a year-and-a-half here.” When he was asked if he might not play better on the right in one press conference, he replied: “that’s a good question.” At one international get-together, he noted: “Deschamps knows where to play me.” The “unlike Barcelona” part didn’t need saying.
Well-liked at Barcelona, Griezmann seemed to lack the personality to impose himself. One manager effectively told him he had to get on with it; just do it. No more excuses. Another tried to bring him more into the play, to get him to step up. “He’s not a ‘crack‘ [great],” El Pais recently quoted a director as saying privately, which might have been fine, but he was supposed to be.
And now, with Messi going, perhaps he could become one, responsibility his; the reward, too.
Initially, Barcelona had seen his departure as a way of holding onto Messi. Both together was economically unsustainable. Same dared to dream of a fee in three figures, though there were no offers at that stage of the summer. They had said as early as mid-July that they were open to him leaving. A swap deal with Saul was looked into, but fell down. They had tried to push him out, a state of affairs he had come to accept. And then Messi left, leaving him behind.
It’s Antoine’s time, some suggested within the club. “Now, Antoine will surely be more important,” said manager Ronald Koeman. “It’s possible that he occupies Leo’s position. This will give more freedom to the team, and to himself. It could be an advantage for him.”
Now, he’s gone. If it is an opportunity lost, that’s because it is also an opportunity that may have already passed. And, well, as the old line has it: it’s the economy, stupid. Messi’s departure alone was not enough, but nor was it everything. While Memphis Depay seemed not to care what or who had gone before, determined to take control, to step centre-stage and fill that void, Griezmann hadn’t yet managed a shot on target. Summer thoughts had turned elsewhere, something had already been broken, didn’t feel quite right — if it ever had. And then home called. Late, but it did.