Atletico Madrid plays better with Antoine Griezmann in their lineup, according to manager Diego Simeone. So, aside from the derby against Real Madrid last weekend, why has he only been used as a substitute in all games this season?
Less is more, as they say, and that certainly appears to be the case for the Frenchman, who, despite playing only about a third of the minutes available to him, is the club's joint top goalscorer with Alvaro Morata on three goals.
We need to remember how valuable Griezmann was when he signed for Barcelona from Atletico Madrid for £108 million on Bastille Day in July 2019. He is still the sixth most expensive footballer in history three years later.
The issue is that the signing of Griezmann is synonymous with the acrimony that characterized the club's former president, Josep Maria Bartomeu.
The transaction was marred by controversy, which persisted even after the player arrived in Barcelona. Griezmann's buyout clause was reduced from 200 million euros to 120 million euros on July 1, that year, and the striker completed his move to Barcelona 12 days later.
Many of the club's key players at the time would have preferred to see Neymar, who had left to join PSG in 2017, return. The Brazilian was eager to move, but Bartomeu fueled the fire by repeatedly denying there was a deal in place to bring Griezmann in, despite the fact that there was.
It was a bad start that was always going to hamper his ability to hit the ground running once it became clear that his arrival was a foregone conclusion and that any talk about Neymar's return had been nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, and Luis Suarez were never going to need much of an excuse to dislike Griezmann, from his sense of humour to his childish way of celebrating goals. As consummate a professional as he was – and still is – everything about the doomed deal suggested from the start that he would never fit in with the Barcelona hierarchy.
And so it turned out, despite the fact that it was hardly his fault. He was frequently forced to play out of position, sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left, but he never complained. Griezmann would have been more effective in the same space as Leo Messi, but that spot was taken by the best in the world.
When the rot set in and it became clear that Barcelona needed to sell players to survive, Griezmann was at the top of the list. Not that he cared; in fact, Griezmann couldn't believe his good fortune. He adores Atletico, as does everyone else at the club, and he couldn't wait to return.
The two clubs agreed to a two-year loan agreement in which Griezmann would be contractually obligated to pay Barcelona 40 million euros if he played more than 45 minutes in more than 50% of the games.
There were sighs of relief all around, not least from Barcelona, which had been paying Griezmann 38 million euros per year and would have to continue to pay him if he returned. His contract with Barcelona is set to expire on June 30, 2024. Griezmann played more than 80% of the minutes last season. If he plays a similar amount this season, Atletico's obligation will kick in very soon.
What is the solution? For the French forward to enter the game after the 60th minute, ensuring that his appearances do not count as a full game and the percentage falls below 50%. Griezmann had appeared as a substitute in every game up until Sunday's derby. The minute he appears in these games explains everything – 62, 62, 64, 63, 61, 63, 62. The percentage of minutes played during the loan period was approaching 70%.
The problem is that, despite starting against Real, Griezmann is becoming increasingly irritated with being used as a financial pawn in this high-stakes ‘Mexican stand-off' between the clubs.
He is being professional about it, and when he plays, he does so with the enthusiasm of a newcomer. Contrary to popular belief, Griezmann never agreed not to play from the start; he simply obeys orders. Things appear to be coming to a head, with Barcelona threatening legal action last week via friendly members of the media, implying that what Atletico was doing was illegal.
The truth is, and Barcelona is well aware of it, that as the contract stands, Atletico are doing nothing wrong, and as long as he is on loan to them, they can play Griezmann as frequently or as infrequently as they want. But Atletico needs him because they are now eight points behind the leaders.
According to a recent article in the French newspaper L'Equipe, the two clubs are on the verge of agreeing on a 25 million euro deal that would relieve Barcelona of the potential financial burden while also allowing Atletico to have unlimited access to the player. Atletico denies they are close to a deal, while Barcelona is more optimistic.
Even the Barcelona-based sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo has stated unequivocally that Atletico is not limiting the player's ability to do his job. They admit that Atletico is in compliance with the law because, as a registered player with the club and the league, he has the right to effective employment, and the club is only required to let him train with the group, not to guarantee him a starting spot.
So is Griezmann a prisoner to a contract or are the teams simply doing their legal part? It's interesting to follow how the situation will develop long-term.