Atlético & Barcelona's Interesting Transfer Relationship Part 2

Atlético & Barcelona’s Interesting Transfer Relationship Part 2

Since taking charge of the club on December 23, 2011, Diego Simeone has transformed Atlético Madrid from a midtable side to a team that has proven capable of winning silverware on the domestic stage and competing with Europe’s biggest clubs for glory. Under the Argentinian manager, the Rojiblancos have won two league titles, as many, as they had won in the previous 37 years, reached two Champions League Finals, and won the 2012/13 Copa del Rey, their first trophy since suffering relegation in 1999/00, before winning their first La Liga title in 18 years and reaching their first Champions League Final in 40 years in the 2013/14 season.

The summer of 2013 had seen Atlético sign Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld from Ajax, French midfielder Joshua Guilavogui from Saint-Ètienne, Brazilian striker Léo Baptistão from Rayo Vallecano, Spanish goalkeepers Roberto and Daniel Aranzubia from Benfica and Deportivo de la Coruña, respectively, and Argentine defender Martín Demichelis on a free transfer from Málaga, only for Demichelis to depart for Manchester City less than two months later and play a crucial role in defence in the final months of the season as the Sky Blues claimed a second Premier League title in three years under new manager Manuel Pellegrini, but no signing would make a bigger impact than David Villa.

When Villa joined Atlético on July 8, 2013, he became the first of four players to swap the Blaugranas for the Rojiblancos, or vice versa, under Diego Simeone’s reign at the club. Over the next two weeks on Bet Central, we’ll be taking a look at each of the four players who have gone from Barcelona to Atlético or Atlético to Barcelona in the past 10 years.

Antoine Griezmann

Whilst Arda Turan’s promising career was quickly spiralling out of control in Barcelona and Istanbul, Antoine Griezmann was quickly emerging as one of the deadliest forwards in La Liga. Despite Arda’s departure and the underwhelming arrivals of Jackson Martínez and Luciano Vietto, the 2015/16 campaign would see Griezmann reach world-class levels under Diego Simeone, scoring 32 goals and 7 assists to lead Atleti into a title race and another deep Champions League run that would see them defeat PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona and Bayern Munich before losing to Real Madrid in the Final, as well as an impressive Euro 2016 campaign that would see France lose to Portugal on home soil. With 55 goals and 27 assists over the next two seasons, Griezmann became the subject of interest of various richer clubs, including Barcelona, and after Atleti reported Barça to FIFA for an alleged illegal approach for Griezmann in December 2017, the speculation only increased. Atleti finished third in their Champions League group, dropping down to Thursday night football and beating Copenhagen, Lokomotiv Moscow, Sporting and Arsenal before defeating Marseille 2-0 in the 2018 UEFA Europa League Final, the first trophy of Griezmann’s career.

Eager to capitalize on the mounting transfer saga, Griezmann elected to take a page out of NBA superstar Lebron James’ book and release a video in the ilk of Lebron’s “The Decision” in 2010, when he announced his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in an hour-long event that was broadcast on ESPN. Griezmann recorded two separate videos – one stating that he would stay, one stating that he would leave – and in the end, he chose the former. He renewed his contract through 2023 with a salary hike that would see him take home €23 million per year, before jetting off to Russia and leading France to the World Cup trophy. Griezmann was given the captain’s armband and used his increased leverage to persuade Atleti to splurge €70 million on France teammate Thomas Lemar, but the Rojiblancos were unable to build on that momentum, finishing 11 points adrift of champions Barcelona, losing to Girona in the Round of 16 of the Copa del Rey, and losing to Juventus in the Round of 16 in the Champions League. One year after “The Decision,” Griezmann had decided he had taken Atleti as far as he could – it was time for a change.

When Griezmann renewed his contract in the summer of 2018, he did so with a special clause that would see his release clause drop from €200 million to €120 million on July 1, 2019. On July 12, 2019, Barcelona announced the signing of Griezmann to a five-year contract after activating his €120 million buy-out clause, only for Atleti to dispute the transfer, claiming that Griezmann had agreed the move to Barcelona before July 1. Barcelona were fined a total of €300 for holding talks with the Frenchman, although their settlement with Atleti would prove even costlier, with the Blaugrana club paying an additional €15 million in order for Atleti to not publish secret emails and conversations that revealed Griezmann’s move to Barcelona had been agreed in March when the €200 million release clause was still in effect. Griezmann had gone from a legend in the making to a pariah – on the same day he was presented as a Barcelona player, Atleti fans vandalized and defaced his plaque outside of the Wanda Metropolitano.

Whereas Griezmann was the star man at Atleti, he was now shoehorned into a supporting role in attack alongside Suárez and Messi, and it soon became apparent that trying to fit him into the team was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Neither him nor Ousmane Dembélé nor Malcom nor Philippe Coutinho were able to provide the same explosiveness, speed and trickery that Neymar did prior to joining Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. Griezmann wasn’t a natural winger like Neymar, but rather, a second striker who thrived when playing next to a more physical striker like Olivier Giroud or Diego Costa. Incapable of creating danger from a standing position or wiggling his way down the touchline, Griezmann struggled to fit into an unnatural left-wing position in the 4-3-3 with just 15 goals and 4 assists in 48 appearances in 2019/20 as Barcelona and his former club both ended with a trophyless campaign. After struggling to adapt under Ernesto Valverde or Quique Setién, the appointment of Ronald Koeman would yield positive results for Griezmann, who registered 20 goals and 13 assists in 2020/21 and showcased a tireless work ethic that had rarely been seen from Barcelona’s forwards in years past. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t enough – Atlético Madrid would win their first league title in seven years, whilst Barcelona finished third and exited the Champions League at the Round of 16. Their wasteful spending had finally caught up to them, preventing them from renewing the contract of Lionel Messi and forcing them to offload their highest-paid player to one of their domestic rivals. Griezmann returned to Atleti on August 31, 2021, on a one-year loan with an option to extend it for another year, as well as a conditional permanent transfer clause worth €40 million to be activated by 2023. It seemed as though Barça had finally gotten rid of him, but after a dismal 2021/22 campaign that would see him score 8 goals and 7 assists in 39 appearances, the club began to have reservations. Ultimately, Simeone’s will to keep the player at the club won out against the board’s scepticism, with the two parties reaching a compromise. Griezmann returned to the club on loan, but instead of starting matches, he would come on for the final 30 minutes of each match, a strategy no doubt devised by the Atleti lawyers who painstakingly searched his contract for a loophole. Atleti would have been obligated to sign Griezmann for €40 million in 2023 if he featured in 50% of the matches that he is available for selection during his loan spell. Matches are only counted if Griezmann plays 45 minutes or more in any particular game, prompting Atleti to limit the Frenchman to a half-hour in each match. This strategy came to an end on September 18, when Griezmann started and provided an assist in a 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid, before starting their next two Champions League fixtures as well as a match against Girona. Barça considered taking legal action, only to realize that Atleti was under no obligation whatsoever to include him in the starting line-up. Desperate to not be on the hook for the final year of his contract, Barcelona negotiated a lower fee and on October 10, Atleti officially purchased Griezmann for a fee of €20 million, with the 31-year-old signing a contract through 2026. He has already scored 4 goals and 2 assists in his first 13 appearances this season and will be looking to string together a run of starts before the FIFA World Cup and continue his impressive form in the Spanish capital. 

After scoring the sole goal in a 1-0 win against Athletic Club on October 15, Griezmann admitted, “ was difficult personally, but I tried not to show it. When I play, I give 100%, and if not I support my teammates and make a difference when I come on. I apologise. I know that a lot of people want to hear it directly from me. I’m sorry if I hurt the fans, but the biggest apology I want to make is on the pitch. I’m very proud to have finally been able to get to this point, to be able to renew and to be an Atletico player completely.”

From paying a total of €135 million for him in 2019 to letting him go for €20 million in 2022, Antoine Griezmann will certainly go down as one of Barcelona’s costliest mistakes in the transfer market. 

Luis Suárez

By the time the summer transfer window kicked off on July 1, 2014, both Luis Suárez and FC Barcelona were at a crossroads. The Uruguayan striker had emerged as a deadly sharpshooter at Anfield since arriving from Ajax in January 2011, scoring 30 goals and 14 assists in 44 appearances in the 2012/13 campaign and earning the interest of Arsenal who submitted a bid of £40,000,001, with Suárez’s attempts to leave the club earning himself a suspension that would see him return to action on September 25 and quickly form a stellar duo with Daniel Sturridge in attack and score 31 goals and 17 assists in 33 Premier League appearances, winning the Premier League Golden Boots and the European Golden Shoe alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite scoring a whopping 101 goals in 38 matches, Liverpool would miss out on a first-ever Premier League title by two points to Manchester City, with Suárez departing for Brazil to play in the 2014 FIFA World Cup but unable to recreate the same magic of the 2011 Copa América that would see him score four goals, win the Best Player award and lead Uruguay to victory in the Final in Buenos Aires, opening the scoring in the 11th minute as La Celeste defeated Paraguay by a 3-0 scoreline. Suárez was forced to undergo emergency surgery on his left knee on May 22 and was an unused substitute for the opening match, a 3-1 defeat to Costa Rica, before starting the following match against an England side that included five of his Liverpool teammates and scoring a brace in a 2-1 victory. It meant that Uruguay needed a win in their final group stage match to qualify for the Round of 16, whilst Italy only needed a draw. Italy were reduced to 10 men in the 59th minute with Claudio Marchisio seeing red, and they found themselves defending deep in their own box and looking to stave off another attack in the 81st minute when Suárez decided to lunge into Giorgio Chiellini while waiting for a cross and taking a bite out of his shoulder. The Azzurri players were incredulous at the referee’s decision to wave off Chiellini’s bite mark demonstrations and award a corner kick to Uruguay, with Gastón Ramírez chipping in a corner kick for Diego Godín to head home and seal a 1-0 victory in Natal. Suárez finished the game without a booking, but he did not escape the wrath of the international football authorities, with the FIFA Disciplinary Committee suspending him for nine international matches effective immediately, the longest ban in World Cup, and banning him from taking part in any football-related activity (including entering any stadium) for four months and fined him a total of 100,000 Swiss francs. Uruguay would lose to Colombia in the Round of 16, and Suárez had landed himself in his latest controversy yet after previously biting opponents in 2010 and 2013 whilst playing for Ajax and Liverpool. Desperate for a fresh start, Suárez finally got his move, joining FC Barcelona for a fee of €82.3 million.

After a slow start to life in Barcelona that would see him struggle on the right side of the front three before being moved back to his natural centre forward position, Suárez kicked off 2015 with a 1-0 defeat at Real Sociedad, a loss that was followed by the dismissal of Andoni Zubizarreta as sporting director, increased speculation linking Lionel Messi to a Chelsea move, and the feeling that Barça could be headed for a mid-season crisis under new manager Luis Enrique. The following match would see Barcelona respond with a 3-1 win against Atlético Madrid with Suárez scoring a goal and an assist – from that game onwards, Barcelona started to click on all cylinders, with Suárez spearheading the attacking trident alongside Messi and Neymar, scoring 16 goals and 16 assists in the league, none more important than his goal on March 22, 2015. Jeremy Mathieu opened proceedings early on via a set-piece only for Cristiano Ronaldo to leave the scoring after a half-hour, but the Blaugranas reclaimed the lead in the 56th minute with Suárez controlling a looping ball from Dani Alves and timing his run to perfection before slotting it past Iker Casillas to secure a 2-1 win, remaining four points ahead of Los Blancos and sealing the league title on the penultimate match of the season with a 1-0 win vs. Atlético Madrid.  The Uruguayan chipped in 9 goals and 7 assists in cup competitions and grabbed an assist as Barcelona defeated Athletic Club in the Copa del Rey Final, scoring a brace in each first leg against Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, setting up two goals in a 3-2 defeat to Bayern Munich that would see Barça progress 5-3 on aggregate and book their ticket to the Champions League Final. Ivan Rakitić broke the deadlock within four minutes only for Álvaro Morata to equalize in the 55th minute, with Barça taking the advantage in the 68th minute as Messi raced past a sea of black and white shirts and fired a shot from outside of the box that was spilled by Gianluigi Buffon, with Suárez beating Patrice Evra to the rebound and firing it into the back of the net. Barça would hang on to the lead and double the advantage in extra time via Neymar to become the first club to win the treble for a second occasion and the first club to win a ‘sextuple’ or six trophies in a year – Bayern Munich would equal both of those feats in 2020.

Whilst 2014/15 was his most decorated year as a professional athlete, Suárez enjoyed the best goalscoring form of his entire career in 2015/16 with 59 goals and 24 assists in 53 appearances, scoring 40 goals in 35 appearances – including a hat-trick on the final day of the season in a 3-0 win at Granada to edge Real Madrid to the league title by a point. He became the first player other than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to win both the Pichichi and the Golden Shoe in a season since his compatriot Diego Forlán pulled off the feat while at Atlético Madrid in 2008/09, with 14 of his goals coming in his final five matches to stave off a red-hot Los Blancos side that were reinvigorated following the mid-season appointment of Zinedine Zidane. Suárez’s 16 assists saw him finish level with Messi as the top assist provider, becoming the first player in history to lead La Liga in both goals and assists, and the MSN trio finished with 131 goals, breaking the record they had set the previous year for most goals by an attacking trio in a single La Liga season (122) en route to a domestic double.

Suárez racked up 36 goals and 20 assists in all competitions in 2016/17, a year that would prove to be the final one for Luis Enrique and Neymar at the Camp Nou, with Ernesto Valverde taking charge after a season that would see them narrowly miss out on the La Liga title to Real Madrid as well as lose to Juventus in the Champions League quarterfinals, whilst Barça brought in French wonderkid Ousmane Dembélé from Borussia Dortmund to fill Neymar’s void in attack and signed Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool in the January window for a combined €305 million – paying a club-record fee for each player. Whilst neither big-money signing managed to justify his price tag in the 2017/18 campaign, Barça nevertheless rebounded with a domestic double that included a 14-point lead over Atlético and a 17-point lead over Real atop the league table. Suárez scored a total of 31 goals and 20 assists – including a brace in a 5-0 win against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey Final – in a season that will be remembered as much for its success as it will its European collapse. After brushing past Antonio Conte’s Chelsea in the previous round, Barça looked headed for a spot in the semifinals after beating Roma 4-1 at the Camp Nou in a match that would see Kostas Manolas and Daniele De Rossi score own goals and Gerard Piqué and Suárez add to Barça’s lead in the second half. Roma would decrease the deficit within six minutes as Edin Džeko opened the scoring in the second leg, with De Rossi atoning for his own goal and scoring from the penalty spot at the cusp of the hour-mark. It set the stage for a nervy finale that would see Manolas head home from a corner kick in the 82nd minute as Roma edged the Catalan side on away goals, condemning Barça to a fourth quarterfinals elimination in five years.

After scoring 19 goals and 8 assists to lead Barça to a fourth league title in five years since his arrival, Suárez suffered a tumultuous 2019/20 campaign that would see Quique Setién replace Valverde at the helm midway through the season, his last match in charge coming in a 3-2 defeat to Atlético Madrid in the Supercopa de España. This match would also see Suárez suffer a knee injury, with the Uruguayan looking set to miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery, only to get a reprieve following the stoppage of football due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Suárez returned to action during Project Restart and scored a total of 21 goals and 12 assists, including a goal against Napoli to lead Barça to a 3-1 victory and progression to the single-legged quarterfinals against Bayern Munich. Thomas Müller opened the scoring for Bayern within four minutes only for David Alaba to score an own goal shortly after in Lisbon, with Inter loanee Ivan Perišić restoring the Bavarians’ advantage in the 22nd minute and Müller and Gnabry adding goals in the next nine minutes. Suárez would cut the lead to two in the 57th minute, only for Joshua Kimmich to score a fifth goal for Bayern six minutes later. To add insult to injury, Barcelona loanee Philippe Coutinho came off the bench in the 76th minute and quickly set up Robert Lewandowski’s goal with an inch-perfect cross before grabbing a brace in the dying minutes. It was the first time that Barcelona had conceded eight goals in a single match since the 1946 Copa del Generalísimo, and a humiliation that far exceeded their 7-0 aggregate defeat in the 2013 Champions League semifinals to Bayern and that was followed by another treble for the Bavarian side as well as an institutional crisis for the Blaugrana side. Setién was dismissed and replaced by Ronald Koeman, whilst sporting director Eric Abidal followed him out the door. More concerningly, Messi attempted to unilaterally rescind his contract at Barcelona by sending a Burofax to the club’s board, pointing to a clause in his contract that would have allowed him to leave on a free transfer before June 10. The club held their ground, stating that any club interested in signing him would have to pay his €700 million release clause, an argument which La Liga themselves quickly backed up.

Ultimately, Messi backed out of the transfer saga, stating, “I am going to continue in the club because the president told me that the only way to leave was to pay the clause and that this is impossible. There was another way and it was to go to trial. I would never go to court against Barcelona because it is the club that I love, which gave me everything since I arrived.” Whilst Messi stayed put, there were various veteran players who were sold by Barcelona as a result of the club’s ‘limpieza’ or cleaning-up of the squad in the wake of the 8-2 loss in Lisbon. Ivan Rakitić (33) returned to Sevilla for an initial fee of €1.5 million, whilst Arturo Vidal (32) joined Inter Milan on a free transfer. Suárez found himself on the chopping block after Koeman informed him he was no longer needed in a one-minute phone call, a decision that angered Messi – one of Suárez’s closest friends in the squad – and contributed to his decision to request a transfer out of Camp Nou. “You deserved a farewell befitting who you are: one of the most important players in the history of the club, achieving great things for the team and on an individual level,” lamented Messi. “You did not deserve for them to throw you out as they did. But the truth is that at this stage nothing surprises me any more.”

Suárez looked all but set to join Juventus on a two-year contract – all that stood in his way was an Italian citizenship test. The Uruguayan allegedly cheated on his language test required for his application in the University of Perugia, with the headlines of the rigged exam spreading like wildfire and preventing Juve from signing him due to the non-EU player limit. He returned to Spain and joined Atlético Madrid on a two-year deal, with Atleti paying €6 million for the 33-year-old striker, and opened his account by scoring a brace and an assist in a 6-1 win against Granada in the league opener. Suárez emerged as a veteran leader in attack alongside a crop of talented, younger players such as João Félix, Marcos Llorente, Ángel Correa, and Thomas Lemar, scoring 21 goals and 3 assists in 32 league appearances, including an opening goal in a 1-1 draw vs. Real Madrid on March 7, 2021. Perhaps none were more important than his final two goals – after providing an assist a 2-1 win against Real Sociedad, Suárez scored an 88th-minute winner to seal a 2-1 comeback victory against Osasuna just six minutes after Renan Lodi had equalized. The final matchday of the season would see Óscar Plano finish off a deft counterattacking move with a goal in the 18th minute to give Real Valladolid an early lead, only for Atleti to draw level in the 57th minute after Correa sidestepped a number of opponents before tucking it into the bottom right corner. Valladolid found themselves within inches of reclaiming the lead only for Shon Weissmann’s header to sail above the goal, and shortly after, Suárez would intercept a shoddy back pass from Sergi Guardiola, race from the centre circle to the edge of the box before firing past ex Barça teammate Jordi Masip into the back of the net. Atleti would hold onto a 2-1 victory to finish two points clear of Real Madrid and five points clear of Barcelona atop La Liga, with Suárez finishing as Atleti’s top scorer and spurring them to their first league title in 7 years, whilst Valladolid were relegated to the second division. Once again, Barcelona had gifted an ageing striker to the Rojiblancos on a cut-rate price, and once again, it had blown up in their faces.

Suárez was unable to repeat the same heroics and scored just 11 goals and 3 assists in 2021/22 before leaving on a free transfer after the club elected to not renew his contract, but he will nevertheless be fondly remembered in the Spanish capital for the ultimate vengeance on Koeman and the rest of the club. Barcelona took a gamble on him in 2014 that later paid off – Suárez cleaned up his act and steered clear of controversy across his eight years in Spain – but their gambles in 2020 went horribly awry. Whilst Suárez would end up leading Atlético to a championship, Messi would end up leaving for Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer after the club was unable to renew his contract, a mere 11 months after they turned down a series of mouth-watering offers from Manchester City for the Argentine.

16 years after leading them to a Clausura title with 10 goals in 27 matches before earning a move to Dutch side Gronigen, Suárez would return to his boyhood club and win the Clausura title with 5 goals and 3 assists in 12 matches for Nacional. The 35-year-old will depart the club in November after his contract expires, before heading to Qatar to take part in the FIFA World Cup. Having lost in the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals in the previous two editions, Suárez will be hoping for a more fruitful experience as Uruguay kick off their tournament with a match against South Korea, before taking on two familiar faces – a Portugal side that lost to Uruguay in the Round of 16 in 2018, and a Ghana side that lost to Uruguay on penalties in the quarterfinals in 2010 after Suárez handled a ball on the goal line to prevent Asamoah Gyan from scoring in the final minute of play. It remains to be seen whether or not Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer can go out with one last hurrah, but one thing’s for sure: Luis Suárez will go down as one of the greatest footballers of his generation.

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Author: Bradley Hughes