Owing to a number of factors—the final deterioration of an aging generation, a cleaved and confused identity, a fanbase at war with its club, shirts that didn’t look right, a registration ban, some debt-necessitated sales, Koke’s continued regression, Griezmann’s divided interests, not having a healthy right back in the squad for extended periods—Atletico Madrid bottomed out aesthetically last year, grimly and brokenly dragging themselves to a Europa League title. It speaks to how far Atleti have come over the course of Cholo Simeone’s seven-and-a-half year managerial tenure that second place in La Liga and a medium-prestigious cup smacks mildly of failure these days, but it’s not what they achieved (or didn’t) so much as how they went about it. There’s a perception, because they play compactly and on the counterattack against Europe’s best teams in high-profile games, that Cholo is a kind of Argentine Mourinho, encouraging a pragmatic dourness that makes for poor entertainment, but this isn’t strictly true. (It’s not strictly true of Mourinho either, but that’s another conversation.)
Atleti’s tediousness last season wasn’t down to approach so much as a lack of talent, particularly in the midfield, where by halfway through the season they were playing Angel Correa out of position as a right winger just to give them somebody who could dribble and make a decent run down the flank. The lone revelation, amidst all the sub-par years and through balls slammed directly into the shins of defenders, was Thomas Partey, a Ghanaian utility player who had started nine league games over the previous two seasons. When a team is struggling offensively, the chronic disconnect between intention and result—the one-two doesn’t get past one-and-a-half, the switch sails over the left back’s head—lends matches a banal stress dream-like quality. The team is punching in their PIN into the ATM, but it won’t give up its cash, and also their dad is yelling at them. In a lot of matches, Thomas was the only Atleti midfielder who looked awake and in control.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Thomas was a project, a good athlete with a heavy touch and dubious passing instincts when he arrived at Atlético Madrid’s academy as a teenager, who at age twenty-four heading into last season, had succeeded modestly: he was either going to settle in as a capable backup or move to a smaller club where he could start consistently. He was widely admired by Atleti fans because he plays with an unusual charisma, but just as often as he would make some strange and slippery dribble into space, he would ponderously search for an open teammate and lose the ball. Gabi was more trusted. Koke and Saúl were more celebrated and accomplished. Thomas was fourth choice, a fine player for cup matches and the odd trip to Las Palmas, but not somebody Simeone would rely upon heavily.
He got into the lineup regularly because Gabi faded, as you might expect a 34-year-old to, but more than that, he excelled. In a double pivot alongside Saúl, Thomas was the deeper destroyer type who chased down streaking opponents and poked his toes into passing lanes, and while he was quite good at that, what stood out the most was his suddenly improved vision. It turns out that when he was younger, the reason he occasionally dwelled on the ball too long was because he wished to function as a playmaker. He didn’t want to just one-touch a safe pass back to a defender but instead look for a forward dropping between the lines or a fullback running up the wing. Having refined himself technically over the summer and sped up his thinking slightly, he was now able to settle the ball and pick a pass in one fluid motion, or take a few dribbles to stall or create some room, then find a teammate in an advanced position.
Nobody else in rojiblanco midfield could do this. Yannick Carrasco got run out of the team by February. Saúl is a highly useful player, but an unremarkable passer. Gabi doesn’t take risks. Koke should have been dropped, such was his lack of imagination. In many games, especially during the first half of the season, when Antoine Griezmann was in a funk, Thomas was Atleti’s best player.
Simeone and his sporting department took note of this deficiency and poured a bunch of money into the midfield over the summer. Thomas Lemar, Rodrigo Hernandez, and Gelson Martins have come in to give the manager more choices and hopefully add some dynamism to a group that severely lacked it last season. This is good for the team, if not perhaps Thomas himself. He and Rodri fill a similar role, and compounded by the fact that Simeone trusts Koke far more than he should, Thomas’s starting spot is in danger. It might be that he transformed himself, grew into his position, and will end up on the bench against, say, Barcelona or in a big Champions League match.
No career tracks linearly. We like to think that young players are getting better all the time, older ones are slowing down, and merit is a thing that accumulates like water in a rain barrel, but time is the only thing that moves in one direction. Athletes circumstantially jitterbug around, usually roughly toward success or failure yet never completely steadily. They get lucky, make their own luck, and have no luck at all. Develop, regress, and have fluke seasons. Everything Thomas has done over the past year has been impressive and lightly inexplicable. If this were a story, you could say he’s overcome his second act problem and is ready to thrive. Roll credits. But a professional life has just one definitive end and everything before that is a discursive epic sprawl rumbling and resolving itself many times over.
Thomas, coming off a great season, has arrived. Now he has to arrive again, repeatedly, in order to keep hold of what he’s got. Even what seems to stay still is cyclical and irregular. Atleti’s training camp consists of three-a-day practices in Madrid’s brutal summer heat. In the middle of it, Thomas tweeted a photo of him working out. The accompanying message: smile no condition is permanent. He gets it.