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It hasn’t worked out at Atletico, but Thomas Lemar can make a big impact in the Premier League

January 7, 2020

THE imminent end for Thomas Lemar’s struggles at Atletico Madrid is potentially excellent news for whichever of Tottenham or Arsenal can get a deal done to sign the still just 24-year-old France international this January.

A few years back Lemar was one of European football’s most exciting talents – and he seemed to have his pick of the top Premier League clubs after bursting onto the scene as Monaco beat Tottenham and Manchester City on their way to the 2016/17 Champions League semi-finals.

A €70 million summer 2018 move to Atletico has just not worked out for various reasons – especially rojiblanco coach Diego Simeone’s tactical and physical demands draining the creativity and spark from his game. Lemar has just three goals in 64 appearances for Atletico – and zero goals or assists in 21 appearances [nine starts] in all competitions this season.

“The facts speak for themselves,” Simeone said last Friday. “With Lemar we have acted on what we believed, but it’s true he has not developed all his potential. He has characteristics that nobody else in our squad has. When he returns from injury, hopefully he will hit good form.”

Whether he hits that form or not at Atletico was now an open question, Simeone was happy enough to publicly confirm.

“About whether he stays or not, we know that agents do their work brilliantly, and clubs have their own requirements,” the Argentine said. “But when he has been available he has played more often than not. I've always been excited by his characteristics, but he's not been able to match expectations.”

It is pretty unusual for Simeone to talk so openly about a player of his leaving – and suggested that work over his exit was well advanced. The ‘brilliant’ agent mentioned is Portuguese superagent Jorge Mendes, who helped out in the complex deal which brought Lemar to Atletico in summer 2017.

The Independent reported on Monday that Tottenham “had been offered” the chance to sign Lemar on loan – paying around €6 million to get him for the next six months and then option to sign permanently for €60 million. And that Arsenal were “also monitoring the situation”.

Complicating matters is that Atletico only own 70% of Lemar’s rights, with Monaco having retained the remaining 30%. Mendes’ close relationship with the Ligue 1 club’s owner Dmitri Rybolovlev can presumably be useful again on sorting this out. Although any English side doing a permanent transfer would need to buy the full 100%, to comply with Premier League rules on third-party ownership.

While Lemar has been whistled from time to time by disappointed supporters at the Wanda Metropolitano, there is a certain amount of sympathy for his situation. He has shown character and persistence in trying to fit in, and his workrate has kept up. But his confidence looks shot, and close friends from the France set-up Antoine Griezmann and Lucas Hernandez both leaving Atletico last summer has not helped either.

There is an awareness among Atletico fans and pundits that Lemar is far from the first attack-minded player to struggle under Simeone’s regime – from Alessio Cerci through Yannick Carrasco to now last summer’s €127 million wonderkid Joao Felix, who is currently struggling to juggle everything that El Cholo demands.

The main reason for Simeone’s apparent willingness to move on Lemar now is a need to add a goalscorer this January. Atletico’s 22 goals in their first 19 La Liga games is the lowest total of the Argentine's time in charge, and money is needed from somewhere to remedy the situation.

Plan A is to finally land long-time target Edinson Cavani – but matching his €15.8m wages at current club Paris Saint-Germain would push Atletico over their La Liga mandated €348.5 million salary limit. The Uruguayan, 32, is apparently willing to take a pay-cut if he can get a two-and-a-half year contract at the Wanda.

But his full-time arrival would also probably mean the often injured Diego Costa, 31, would also have to leave too. Other potential options to add goals to the squad include Chelsea's Olivier Giroud, Borussia Dortmund's Paco Alcacer and Osasuna's Chimy Avila.

A fresh start should also be attractive to Lemar, who has 22 caps for France, but has started just one competitive international since playing a bit-part in winning World Cup 2018. The useful characteristics that Simeone mentioned are a mix of physical and technical gifts which in theory are an ideal fit for a modern counter-attacking approach. When fully confident he has both the engine to press enthusiastically, and the skills to strike directly once possession is regained.

That might make him more suited for what Mikel Arteta is aiming to build at Arsenal, over Jose Mourinho’s more dated approach at Tottenham. Although most likely being able to get a deal done with all of Atletico, Mendes and Monaco will count more than tactical considerations in the end.

The hope is that Lemar can regain the form that saw him end 2016/17 with 14 goals and 18 assists, plus a Ligue 1 winners’ medal. Simeone seems to have decided that he will never reach that level at Atletico. But in the right environment he could thrive again, and he looks set to be given the chance.