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Yannick Carrasco: Atletico’s unexpected superstar

Yannick Carrasco Atletico Madrid with the shot to 1 0 right Philipp Lahm Bayern Munich Atletico Madrid vs Bayern Munich Football Champions League 2 Matchday 28 09 2016 (Photo by Eibner/Imago/Icon Sportswire)
(Eibner/Imago/Icon Sportswire)

Prior to this season, Atletico Madrid’s transfer business circled around one particular player: Kevin Gameiro. Despite the French forward’s assumed interest in moving from Sevilla to Barcelona — who were highly interested in acquiring his services — it was Simeone and Co. who eventually landed the 29-year-old in exchange for the disappointing Luciano Vietto. And that was that. The Colchoneros had gotten their man, and their already-potent attack was set to explode into a kaleidoscope of fury and goals. And to be fair, it has done just that. Although not exactly in the way they might’ve expected.

In this scenario, Yannick Carrasco is the unexpected lightning rod that not many saw coming. As the kinda-sorta-third wheel of Atleti’s Griezmann-Gameiro attacking platoon — Simeone’s preferred 4-4-2 formation creates more of a dynamic dual striking unit between the two Frenchmen rather than a trident — Carrasco has been destroying Primera defenses this season so far. After spending most of 2015/16 coming off the bench, the Belgian has played himself into a regular starting role by scoring five goals in his last four Liga matches. Production-wise, Carrasco is neck-and-neck with both Griezmann and Gameiro, who have notched six and five league goals, respectively.

Most casual onlookers will recognize Carrasco from his Champions League final equalizer last May — or at least from the celebration after the goal. His journey, however, began long before his he was Frenching his girlfriend in-front of the world from the San Siro sidelines.

After garnering moderate attention in Genk’s youth system, Carrasco moved to AS Monaco in 2012, where he established himself as a genuine prospect. Although he played a major part in Monaco’s 2013 promotion to Ligue 1, he first caught global attention after scoring this coffin-nailer against Arsenal in the 2014/15 Champions League Round of 16. Roughly five months after that memorable strike, Carrasco made his move to Atleti for a reported €17 million.

Carrasco can be best described as a tireless winger with a cool finishing touch. His wideplay conjures images of Franck Ribery, although his carnivorous instincts in front of goal also has him resembling Frank Lampard at times. He takes up a position that regularly pigeonholes speedy types as one-dimensional beings, but Carrasco is exposing more of his toolbox with every passing week. It just so happens that his direct playing style melds perfectly with Atleti’s end-to-end liveliness and blitz-the-penalty-area attacking methodology.

But it isn’t just that Carrasco is starting to score more goals. Rather it’s the nature of these goals and how he’s scoring them that’s significant, too. His October hat-trick against Granada reveals an effective inside-cut, as well as a prowess for poaching. Also consider the first from his brace against Malaga last weekend, where he leaves Bakary Kone for dead before hitting Carlos Kameni’s goalmouth in the one spot he’d be unable to stop it.

As concisely displayed in that Malaga goal, it’s the precision of Carrasco’s finishes that specifically spells trouble for future net-minders. The speed and placement of his shooting, particularly toward the far-post, shows just how in-the-pocket he is at the moment. These goals are what it tends to look like when a player cracks a code, thus separating himself from those defending him.

Think of when Arjen Robben finally combined a sweet far-post curler with his patented cut-inside-to-the-left run. Like his Dutchman counterpart, Carrasco seems to be creating a gap, in both time and space, that usually accompanies a true breakout period. And his breakneck speed only compounds these advantages. Could the goals could be aberrations? Sure. But they probably wouldn’t look the way they do, nor be arriving in droves, if they were.

Here’s a truth: sometimes we — fans, pundits, writers, scouts, etc. — see the Next Big Thing coming from a mile away. Whether labeled “the new Messi,” or “Pele’s heir,” or “Zidane 2.0,” we often have the greats’ path to glory laid out for them before they even sign a professional contract. We notice them in a reserves match, an international youth tournament, or even a Football Manager simulation. It’s something those of us obsessed with the game can’t help but partake in, the christening of a new somebody.

But tomorrow’s Maradona, or even tomorrow’s Saviola, isn’t always so easy to identify. Sometimes we miss that somebody because they’re lurking, maybe a psychological breakthrough, or a shift in training, or a simple opportunity away from realizing their potential. There are countless footballers of whom we’ll never know their names or stories simply because the variables necessary for flourishment never aligned with their particular situation. Carrasco might not be 2020’s Ballon d’Or winner, but he’s proving right now that he’s much more than everyone thought he was.

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