Antoine Griezmann is Atletico Madrid’s super-sub this season, but it’s all part of their plan

Suddenly, Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone was up and running. A little uneasily in that suit and those shoes, sliding slightly as he headed down the touchline, but he was. And who could blame him for losing his head?

He knew better than anyone just how big this was, how much of a release, what it really meant, and what lay behind it. How hard it had been to get here. How well the plan had come together — better than even he had dared imagine. Well, him and the man he was now sprinting towards wanting to embrace, to share this moment with.

If the game had been as bad as you might imagine, added time was better than you ever could. After no goals in 90 minutes, for only the second time in Champions League history, three had been scored in added time: a 92nd-minute winner for Atletico that turned out not to be a winner at all, a 96th-minute Porto equaliser via a penalty committed by the man who had scored that “winner” and then, an actual winner in the 101st. Not just any winner; Antoine Griezmann had headed in the latest winning goal anyone had ever scored in the competition.

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“This will be the last chance,” the commentator said, and it was. A corner was nodded on by Axel Witsel, and Griezmann was there to score at the far post. He turned and dashed across the south end of the Metropolitano, looking up and all the limbs in the stand, pulling at the badge on his shirt. As a crowd of players grabbed him and everyone went wild, Simeone sprinted from the bench to reach them, skidding round the corner. When he got there, he pushed his way through the crowd, grabbed Griezmann by the face, laid their heads together and, looking him in the eyes, screamed something, holding him hard.

“I love him; he knows the affection I have for him,” Simeone would say later when he had calmed down a little. And when he had hugged him some more. If Griezmann didn’t know before — which is pretty implausible given everything that had happened, all the conversations they had had, the pacts they had forged — he did now.

The ball lay in the back of the net. The clock had shown 100.19 when it got there. Not in the stadium, it hadn’t, where it had stopped at 90 because of a rule — which, admittedly, slightly obsesses this writer because it’s so absurd — that says fans can’t be trusted with knowing how much time they have actually been playing. But everyone knew it was late, very late. They were into the 11th minute of added time, and the goal was the last touch.

Griezmann kissed the badge. The game didn’t restart. There was no time left, and anyway: what would be the point? It was perfect this way, everyone knew.

This was more than just a goal later than any they had ever seen. More than the goal that gave them a first home win in this competition for 680 days — yes, really. More than the man who scored it, in his manager’s words, being “one of the most important players in Atletico’s history” (now there’s a debate). More than it being the man who had come on as a sub. It was scored by the man who always comes on as a sub.

That might sound a bit silly, which is partly because it is. So wait, let’s get this straight: The man who is one of the most important players in Atletico’s history. The man the manager loves. The man who is a World Cup winner, and probably their best player, their best-paid player. Is always a sub.

Every. Single. Game.

Yeah, that’s about it. Atletico Madrid have played five games this season, and Griezmann has not started any of them. Which makes no sense. Only, it makes total sense, like some parable of modern football, a portrait of the problems two clubs face, a morality tale featuring the mess they have made of things. And how two men (and the rest) try to make the best of it. It is illogical, but relentlessly logical. It’s literally all written there, in black and white — even if some see shades of grey.

Against Getafe, Griezmann came on in the 62nd minute. Against Villarreal, it was also 62. Against Valencia, 64. Against Real Sociedad, 63. And now, against Porto, it was 61.

You might have spotted a pattern there. Everyone has. Not least because they want you to: this is a message as well as a substitution. A blunt, unsubtle message designed to be inescapable. It has become a kind of running joke, a meme, although it’s not always that funny for those involved. And these are people, remember.

Around the 60th minute, everyone’s waiting for it now. Griezi time. Heeeeere’s Antoine. The reason, as you probably already know, is simple: he doesn’t play more because he can’t play more. Because playing more costs money that Atletico don’t have.

“It’s not in my hands,” Griezmann said. Which hasn’t always been entirely true, but is about right.

So here’s why.

Griezmann joined Atletico Madrid from Barcelona last summer, on a two-year loan deal. At the end of it, Atletico are obliged to sign him permanently for €40m if, that is, he plays more than 50% of the games over the two years (although some doubt has now crept in about whether interpretation allows for a grey area as to whether it’s 50% in the two years together, or in each of the two years). Playing a game is set at half a match, i.e. 45 minutes. So if he plays a half or more in half of the games or more over two seasons, then Atletico will have to pay Barcelona €40m.

Last season, Griezmann started six games in the Champions League and came on as a sub in three. He started 24 games in LaLiga and came on as a sub in five. But it’s not the simple percentage of the games that he plays that counts; it is the percentages of the games he plays when available that does. He missed only one in the Champions League, but he was suspended, which doesn’t count. In LaLiga he missed eight through injury, which don’t count. He sat on the bench only once; he played less than 45 minutes only twice (against Barcelona, 18 minutes, and Celta, 26 minutes).

All of which means that the quota of games is pretty close to used up already. (And if he was to get injured and miss the rest of the season, it would effectively already be used up).

If Atletico play him and cross that threshold, they will have to pay Barcelona €40m, but Atletico cannot afford to pay Barcelona. Meanwhile, Barcelona cannot afford for Atletico not to.

It’s not just the €40m in transfer fee that they would lose out on; it is that they would get Griezmann back and find themselves tied, once again, to a salary of around €20m net (almost €40m gross) a year for two more years for a player they do not want. They would have to find another solution: essentially, another destination for him. They would have to go through all that again.

Because Atletico can’t afford to have the obligatory purchase clause triggered, they have decided not to play him. Except that they want to play him, and as much as they possibly can. Which is why they are putting him on after an hour, meaning that those games are not included in his total, that those games do not count as games.

There is a neat phrase in Spanish that sums this up: hecha la ley, hecha la trampa. Roughly it means: no sooner is the law in place than the loophole is, too. Make the law, make the cheat. It is why Griezmann has come on in minutes 62, 62, 64, 63 and 61.

That, you might have noticed, means he plays under 30 minutes rather than under 45, and you might ask why they don’t just put him on a couple of minutes into the second half to maximise his impact, but the reason is that they are playing safe. If Barcelona try to argue that “45 minutes” or “half the game” is defined by a total number of minutes out there and the game goes on beyond that, if added time is added to the calculation rather than integrated into it, that could lead to an interpretation in which it could be claimed that Griezmann has gone beyond the threshold. Another game would be added to the total, that clause getting closer.

As the game went into the 98th, 99th and 100th minutes, and Griezmann went into his 38th, 39th and 40th, there were some at Atletico concerned that the match wasn’t over yet for precisely that reason. When he finally scored, everything was on edge: not only the match, but him, too. On one interpretation, he was four minutes off 45, raising the intriguing question: had it been delayed further for any reason, would they have taken him off again? Time is literally money.

That he has come on in minutes 62, 62, 64, 63 and 61, always the same moment, is because Atletico want him to play as much as possible of course but also because they are not just doing this but making a point of doing it.

Although no one was going to say “this is what we are doing” — and club president Enrique Cerezo’s attempts to avoid giving an answer this week were comical — the more obvious it is, the more blatant, the more, well, comical, the better. It is about pressuring Barcelona, who Atletico know do not want him back; it is about inviting them to renegotiate the terms of the deal, reducing that price or risking being stuck with him. It is a statement of strength and determination, a willingness to follow through to the letter of the law. It was about saying: we’re not going to back down, you know. We can do it this way if we must.

Now, there’s a stalemate. Two clubs stuck; two men, Griezmann and Simeone, stuck in the middle. “For the moment we think this is the best path to follow,” Simeone said. That it has gone on this long, this publicly, and that there is no obvious solution in sight even as it feels inevitable that they will have to find one for everyone’s sake, is already a surprise to some. It has come as a source of amusement to many, let’s be honest. It is not comfortable for anyone, but then they knew this was a possibility, and they took it on anyway.

The starting point for this is that Atletico didn’t want Griezmann either, not this summer. His first season back hadn’t been overwhelmingly successful. The goal he scored against third-tier Rayo Majadahonda in the Copa del Rey on Jan. 6 turned out to be his last. He got three league goals, eight in total in all competitions. Above all, though, the cost was too great. The club tried to move him.

The coach, though, had different ideas. Simeone’s big objective in the transfer window was: keep Griezmann. The question was: how? He persuaded the club, but the only way was to accept a scenario in which the Frenchman didn’t “play,” contractually speaking, in which the manager adopted a plan to minimise financial risk and apply pressure on Barcelona. You might have heard Simeone say recently: “I am a club man.”

That meant he had to persuade Griezmann, too. Anyone else and it would have been difficult, impossible maybe. It is a World Cup year, the tournament just months away in fact: getting a player to accept drastically reduced playing time is a hell of an ask. But this was Simeone, in whom he trusts, who helped make him the player he is and then brought him back, and who still could get the best from him.

Griezmann was told that his coach wanted him — he was fighting for him to stay in fact. That he would get as many minutes as possible: 30 (plus added time) a week, every week. That he has a future at Atletico, and that his manager would again do all they could to avoid him having to go back. You might have heard Griezmann say, “I just want to play here and give everything for the club, for Cholo and for the fans.” That “for Cholo” is vital.

This is a tale of two men, but there are more men in the team, a complex balancing act for a coach. They too have their aspirations, they too have a World Cup on the horizon, they too have to accommodate a player coming on pretty early as subs go and pretty well always, perhaps for them. They could easily see him as a threat, and that requires careful handling.

It is not entirely coincidental, nor even entirely tactical, that Griezmann has not been pitched as a replacement for the striker — Alvaro Morata, Angel Correa and Matheus Cunha, men whose place in Qatar is still unsure, forwards for whom going off might feel more like a threat. Instead he has been introduced for midfielders Rodrigo De Paul (twice, although the second time Geoffrey Kondogbia went off in the same minute), Thomas Lemar (twice) and Saul Niguez. Griezmann has the work rate, solidarity and variety to make that work.

And that’s the thing. It works. It actually does work. Maybe it shouldn’t, and maybe the obvious conclusion is to say it would work even better if he played a bit longer, but so far it’s going pretty well. “He has to be mentally strong,” Simeone said of Griezmann, and he has taken it remarkably well. Kept his head down — kept his head up, in fact — and got on with it. Then came on and really got on with it. “It is what it is,” he said. “I want to play more but I am going to give everything.”

Simeone had insisted that what matters is “the quality of the minutes, not the quantity.” In part because he had to, of course, this isn’t ideal, and it might not last forever, but he’s been right until now.

So there he is, every game, Antoine Griezmann standing on the touchline around the hour mark, like an action hero ready to rescue them. The most super super-sub of them all. Antoine The Brief. I love you, Flash, but we have only 30 minutes to save the earth. And somehow they actually do save it, too. Well, sometimes. Quite a lot of the time. He has three goals this season now. A goal every 64 minutes in LaLiga, a goal in his only appearance in Europe, as a sub. No starts, and no one in the team with more.

“He is giving us a lot in the minutes he’s on, whether that’s 25, 30, 33, 32 or 15,” Simeone said, although who knows where the 15 came from. “I love him; he knows the affection I have for him.” His tongue in his cheek perhaps, Simeone added: “The reality is there to be seen, and the reality is that he is playing very well in 30 minutes. In 60, we don’t know. And I’m guided by reality.”

Three times he has led Atletico to victory, from just five brief appearances. Against Getafe, Griezmann had been on the pitch 13 minutes when he scored the winner. Against Valencia, he had been on two minutes when he scored the winner. Against Porto the other night, he had been on almost 30-plus, time running out for them — and for him. He was dangerously close now to being defeated, they all were. Which was when the super-sub scored, sending Simeone skidding up the touchline after him.