In the 2016/17 season, a series of scintillating performances which helped inspire a thrilling Monaco team to the French title served to thrust Thomas Lemar into the limelight as one of the most exciting young talents in world football.
The team from the Principality contained several future superstars such as Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva and Fabinho, but 21 year-old Lemar looked every bit as good as any of them, pairing nine league goals with 11 assists to excite the interest of practically every major club on the planet and earn his first international caps for France.
Monaco managed to hold onto Lemar’s services for another strong season, but the inevitable parting of ways finally happened in the summer of 2018 – shortly after he took part in France’s World Cup winning campaign – when he was prised away from Monaco by a €70 million offer from Atletico Madrid, making him the most expensive signing (at the time) in the Spanish club’s history.
It was all downhill from there.
Far from making the exciting impact his youthful exploits had promised, Lemar has often looked like one of the biggest flops in football history with a long line of bewilderingly limp performances.
He did make a bright enough start to life in Spain, scoring his first goal for Atletico in his fifth league appearance to help secure a 2-0 home win over Getafe in September 2018, and adding a couple of assists within the next couple of weeks. But that proved to be a false dawn, as his output rapidly deteriorated and he finished his first season with a less than grand total of three goals and six assists in 31 starts plus 12 substitute appearances.
If those figures were disappointing, though, they were positively sparkling compared to his second season with Atletico. Not only did Lemar finish the 2019/20 campaign with zero goals and zero assists, but he also mustered only 17 shots and 20 shot creating actions all season – the respective numbers for his last year with Monaco, by comparison, were 50 and 104, making it clear just how much his influence had waned.
By the end of last season Lemar had become little more than an afterthought for Diego Simeone’s team, only starting two games from January onward and spending just 115 minutes on the pitch after June’s restart.
The short summer break, according to widespread reports, was spent with Atletico trying to sell their expensive misfit but understandably failing to find any club willing to take his high wages off their hands. From being feverishly pursued by practically everybody, Lemar was now wanted by nobody, even on a cut-price deal.
In football, though, you just never know. And in the last fortnight Lemar, from out of nowhere, has suddenly started to show that he might yet prove to be a valuable attacking weapon for Atletico.
His unexpected renaissance started a couple of weeks ago at Valencia. With Luis Suarez testing positive for Covid-19, Diego Costa injured and others needing a rest after Champions League and international break exertions, Lemar was handed a place in the starting line-up and responded with his best performance for a very long time.
Playing in the central free role usually occupied by the rested Felix, he brightened up a tight and closely contested encounter by always looking to get on the ball, showing flashes of the creativity rarely seen since his Monaco days. Lemar forced Valencia keeper Jaume Domenech into two good first half saves with shots from the edge of the area, and ended up with four goal attempts – his highest-ever tally in an Atletico shirt.
That was enough to encourage Simeone to give Lemar another start for last weekend’s home meeting with Valladolid – the first time he had been selected for consecutive league games since last December. And the Argentine coach’s faith was rewarded with another bright display which was triumphantly topped off by the crowning moment of his first goal since April 2019, ending a woeful run of 33 consecutive league games without a goal or assist.
Perhaps most encouragingly, Lemar didn’t only score a goal but he was consistently involved in the game. Having been a peripheral presence for so long, his 67 touches of the ball were more than he had managed in any game last season, and his highest total since April 2019, also against Valladolid.
Lemar seems to be re-energised, perhaps boosted in confidence by the strong performance he delivered against Valencia and the praise he received as a result. Netting a well-taken opening goal to set up the 2-0 win over Valladolid will have only further boosted his self-esteem, and the France international is finally looking like a player prepared to come out of his shell and give expression to his undoubted creative talents.
Realistically, Lemar is unlikely to start in this weekend’s Madrid derby. But with Luis Suarez, Joao Felix, Marcos Llorente, Yannick Carrasco and Angel Correa all proving decisive at various times this season, the fact that Lemar is now also looking like another seriously viable matchwinning option can only be great news for the league leaders as they head into a game which could give them a major advantage in the title race.