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It might not look pretty, but it works: Lemar

MADRID (AFP) – “It’s not about advice,” said 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 EUR60 million 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 said in an exclusive interview with AFP.

“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.

Atletico Madrid’s French midfielder Thomas Lemar attends a training session. PHOTO: AFP

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 said.

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 prehistory, 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 prehistory. 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 said Simeone’s principles are unwavering.

“If you knew Simeone as a player, that’s still the identity of Atletico now,” Lemar said. “We’re a feisty team. We get to every ball. We never accept defeat, in matches or in training.

“Everyone has to fight for their place. The coach always tells us never to take our spots for granted. He says competition and rivalry is what makes us grow.”

Atletico have tended to grow in adversity too, Simeone’s sides finding their fire burns brightest when their backs are against the wall. It is why even though Manchester City were so clearly superior in the first leg, there is belief that a comeback is possible in the return at the Wanda Metropolitano today.

“It’s always been that way with Atleti but I’m not going to lie, and maybe it helps, but we get scared as well sometimes when we have to come from behind, even if we know we can change the game in a second,” Lemar said.

“It was annoying to concede that goal against City but if you want to go through, you have to score. We saw there were some opportunities to get at them and we’re going to go hard in this second leg. Let’s hope it comes off.”