Madrid: “It’s not about advice,’’ says Thomas Lemar. “It’s more when he talks, the way he talks, his honesty. That’s what makes you play out of your skin.”
Lemar knows better than anyone the power of Diego Simeone. After joining Atletico Madrid for 60 million euros from Monaco in 2018, Lemar struggled. He scored four goals in his first two seasons and many assumed Atletico would look to cut their losses the following summer.
Yet Simeone saw a player that needed help not a transfer. He moved Lemar from left wing to central midfield and together, they got to work. Last season, Lemar was an ever-present in the midfield three and fundamental to Atletico winning La Liga.
“I had a discussion with the coach last year and we spoke about how to improve my situation in the team,” Lemar says in an exclusive interview.
“He listened, he found a role that suited my strengths. I was more comfortable and it made it easier for me to fit into Atletico’s style. Now my aim is to repay him as much as possible on the pitch.”
When Lemar came from Monaco, he was a winger, creator and scorer, one of the world’s most exciting young attackers, who had drawn interest from Liverpool and Arsenal.
But when that role failed to translate at Atletico, Lemar had to adjust. “I worked hard on my negative points and turned them into positive points, and I became a better, more versatile footballer,” said Lemar.
“Especially defensively, in recovering the ball, in getting into the right defensive position. I worked on it, I added more strings to my bow. I’m a more complete player now.”
The 26-year-old played for France at the European Championship and is determined to be in the squad for this year’s World Cup. “It’s a big goal for me, I have to show what I’m worth,” he says.
That Lemar has become more defensively-minded at Atletico Madrid will come as little surprise given Simeone is now seen as the pre-eminent defensive coach in the game, a master of how to play without the ball.
Those methods have lifted Atletico out of mediocrity and into Europe’s elite - bringing two La Liga titles and a pair of Champions League finals along the way - but aesthetically, it is a style that continues to frustrate.
Atletico were beaten 1-0 by Manchester City last week in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals but statistically, they suffered a hammering.
City had 15 shots to Atletico’s nil and afterwards, Pep Guardiola said: “In pre-history, today and in a hundred thousand years, attacking a 5-5-0 (formation) is very difficult.”
Atletico captain Koke responded on Instagram with a picture of the club’s crest and the caption: “In love with your story since pre-history. Proud to be from Atleti.”
Lemar is asked what he would say to Simeone’s critics. “I have nothing to say to them, except look at the results over the years. Look at the results since the coach arrived at Atletico Madrid.
“It might not look pretty, but it works. Atletico win, that’s the most important thing.”
And while there has been a shift, a greater emphasis on possession this season, if only to accommodate their attacking talents, Lemar says Simeone’s principles are unwavering.
“If you knew Simeone as a player, that’s still the identity of Atletico now,” Lemar says. “We’re a feisty team. We get to every ball. We never accept defeat, in matches or in training.
Uefa on Monday ordered the partial closure of Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium for their Champions League quarter-final second leg against Manchester City on Wednesday over the “discriminatory behaviour” of their supporters.
It also ordered Atletico to display a banner with the wording “#NoToRacism” and the Uefa logo on it.