Analysing how Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann can co-exist in the same system at Barcelona
- Disappointing performances at Naples and at Madrid have Barcelona fans asking if Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann can work together.
Barcelona’s 2-0 defeat at Real Madrid on Sunday might have been their poorest El Clasico performance of recent years. Whilst Gerard Pique certainly felt the other way around, stating in an interview that it was the “worst” Los Blancos side he had ever faced, the lack-lustre performance from Barcelona in front of goal combined with their defensive frailties and tactical inefficiencies meant that manager Quique Setien has been forced to resort back to the drawing board ahead of Real Sociedad’s visit.
Setien’s appointment in the middle of January was no doubt a breath of fresh air at the Camp Nou after Ernesto Valverde had exhausted all of his ideas and methods before facing the inevitable sack. A Johan Cruyff devotee, Setien was able to immediately restore Barcelona’s famed possession-based philosophy. In only his first game in charge, he deployed Sergi Roberto as a right-sided centre-back in a defensive three, put Jordi Alba as a left wing-back, crowded the midfield and left Antoine Griezmann and Lionel Messi up-top. He was also quick in promoting La Masia favourite Riqui Puig to the first team and gave him a surprise substitute appearance in the debut game against Granda.
Not only did the fans point out this much-needed boldness from their new manager, but the team also followed suit. There was a significant increase in the players’ intensity levels as they tirelessly pressed the opponents down. The gameplay was quicker, slicker and more purposeful. And Lionel Messi resumed doing Lionel Messi things.
However, despite the 5-0 thrashings of Leganes and Eibar which represented the epitome of ‘Setien-ball’, Barcelona have got bettered by Valencia and Athletic Bilbao and failed to crack open a subpar Napoli side in the Spaniard’s first 10 games in-charge. With the defence struggling, the midfield labouring and the attack non-existent at times, it is time we finally address the elephant in the room. Can Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann really work together?
Many Barcelona fans were understandably ecstatic at the latter’s mega-money arrival from Atletico Madrid in the summer given his reputation as one of the world’s best centre-forwards. However, some tactical gurus were left scratching their heads as to how the World Cup winner could possibly fit in the Blaugrana puzzle.
Griezmann knew that he would have to sacrifice his entire modus operandi at Barcelona because of Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi’s duopoly in attack. But the World Cup winner was desperate to join the Spanish champions to link-up with his Argentinian idol and reach his footballing summit, none of which has really happened so far.
Suarez has been on top of his game for the last decade or so and is indispensable in the team. And given Ousmane Dembele’s eyebrow-raising injury record, the fact that the Barcelona hierarchy opted to spend big bucks on a centre-forward over a polished winger is perplexing. Yes, Griezmann might be a player of Neymar’s stature but the striker cannot be expected to replicate the Brazilian’s specialities on the left-flank.
Martin Lasarte, Griezmann’s first-ever coach at Sociedad, spoke candidly about how the Frenchman has been shoehorned onto the left-wing prior to Suarez’s long-term knee injury. “Antoine is very intelligent and I think if he is sad, it is because things did not go as he wanted,” the Uruguayan claimed.
Griezmann has thrived in the central role at Sociedad, at Atletico Madrid and still does with France. He is versatile enough to play as an out-and-out striker, behind another striker or as a winger if needed, but it is through the middle where he really excels as an attacker. His agility and work-rate allows him to fall deep, initiate attacks and finish them off as well. However, at Barcelona, he has been forced to shed off these strengths to accommodate the club’s playing style which has, in turn, affected his game severely.
A Twitter post in October highlighting Griezmann’s positional heat-maps with France and Barcelona attracted a lot of debate and discussion. In the two contrasting photos, it is evident that he has a more “floating” role in the national team where Didier Deschamps gives him the freedom to dictate play, however, at Barcelona, he is permanently tucked on the left-third of the pitch with Lionel Messi given that license on the other flank.
Because both Griezmann and Messi love to tuck inside, Barcelona lose their width in the process. The full-backs, therefore, need to be higher up the pitch to provide that stretchability in attack which, in turn, leaves in space behind for opponents to exploit.
Although the superstar duo have squashed rumours of a rift between them, stating that their relationship is blooming bit-by-bit, no such budding bond has been visible on the pitch. Remarkably, in Barcelona’s first four Champions League group-stage games, only 18 passes were exchanged between the pair. Yes, they play on opposite flanks and usually have an intermediary between them, but Messi’s interconnection with Dembele and Ansu Fati in the same formation has been significantly more fruitful. And how can one forget the fluidity and dynamism of the famous trident of Messi, Suarez and Neymar?
Quique Setien’s entry into the Barcelona fold has only made things more complex for Griezmann. With Suarez and Dembele sidelined and Carles Perez offloaded to Rome, the club only have youngster Fati and emergency signing Martin Braithwaite as back-ups to Messi and Griezmann. The Spaniard binned the brave 3-4-3 formation after the loss at the Mestalla and has since then reinstated the traditional 4-3-3 with results slowly spiralling upward. However, having started Fati for the initial games, Setien’s pragmatism has overtaken his purist philosophy with Arturo Vidal being stationed on the right-wing against significantly bigger opposition such as Napoli and Real Madrid.
Messi has, consequentially, taken up a central role but the 32-year-old still tends to shift to his preferred right side. Both Vidal and Messi are, therefore, taking similar positions leaving Griezmann isolated on the far-left. The Chilean midfielder is not a runner nor a run-maker, and he was only given the nod at Naples and Madrid for his defensive prowess. At the Bernabeu however, he was a liability to the team as he constantly slowed down and disrupted the flow of the game. Whilst Vinicius Jr. ran the show with his electric pace, Ansu Fati, who should have started the game, sat on the bench looking on. Setien even tweaked the formation to a 4-4-2 with Frenkie de Jong on the left and Vidal on the right but that did not bear fruit either.
Messi still leads the race for the European Golden Shoe and Griezmann already has 14 goals in all competitions indicating there is no huge crisis in front of goal. Against high-profile opposition, though, the duo have often been nullified and kept quiet. Griezmann has been restricted to attempting first-touch passes and defending the left-flank instead of attacking it. Messi, on the other hand, has had to do everything by himself in the absence of Luis Suarez. This over-dependability on the Argentine skipper has been recognised by opponent managers who have managed to double and even triple-down on him. Whilst their potentially explosive partnership was on full display against Real Betis last month but the Champions League encounters against Inter Milan, Salvia Prague, Napoli and the El Clasico are prime examples of their ineffectiveness together.
Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic are also ageing whilst Frenkie de Jong and Arturo Vidal are more box-to-box midfielders than playmakers. Arthur is the only one capable of creating chances at will, but the Brazilian has been struggling to keep up with his fitness. Therefore, the onus falls on Griezmann and Messi to take responsibility going forward. And much to everyone's disappointment, the two just haven't clicked.
It’s no surprise that Griezmann’s best Barcelona performance came in the 5-2 win over Betis earlier this season when he scored twice, gave an assist and produced seven shots in Messi’s absence. Many reports have suggested that there is a huge ego clash between the two which has crept onto the pitch. Messi and Griezmann are no doubt Barcelona’s best two players currently. And they just have to learn to trust each other and engage each other more during play. The club captain is always wanting to do things on his own and whilst nobody doubts his supernatural ability to do so, he hasn’t been willing to combine with his attacking counterpart.
In this scenario, perhaps a dream Barcelona line-up would be in the 4-2-3-1 formation with a double-pivot of Busquets and de Jong in the middle of the park with Griezmann in front of them as a number ten, as is his role in the national team behind Olivier Giroud. In front of him, Messi will naturally be on the right with Dembele or Fati on the left and Suarez up-front. Some would argue that this approach could significantly reduce defensive solidity.
However, Setien should be braver and add Fati to the mix as he can provide much-needed pace and width in attack. The 17-year-old can also penetrate the defence with his dribbles and take-ons, something which Vidal simply cannot anymore. Barcelona’s narrowness at Naples allowed Gennaro Gattuso’s side to congest the middle of the park and nullify Messi and Griezmann. As things stand, with Dembele and Suarez still out, Griezmann should be given back his central role with Messi and Fati on either side.
Barcelona fans were licking their lips at the start of the season thinking about how Messi and Griezmann could possibly become the most lethal duo in world football. But injuries, managerial changes, formational tweaks and off-the-pitch rifts have all plagued the Frenchman's debut season at the Camp Nou so far.Published 04 Mar 2020, 20:58 IST