Analyzing Antoine Griezmann's move to FC Barcelona and his future at Camp Nou
On paper, these three names at the tip of FC Barcelona's attack is a devastating thought, let alone anything else. In terms of sheer stardust, it appears to be an attack that could tear defences apart at will and win games on its own. There is, unfortunately, more than what meets the eye.
Delve further into the on-field logistics of this attack and then appear the stylistic clashes, incompatibilities and other issues that, at the moment at least, hinder this attack from truly clicking as a unit. His €120m 'dream' move hasn't gone all too well so far.
Suarez and Messi have played together for quite some time now and have been an unstoppable duo at the top. They have been a part of a front three most famously with Neymar Jr. of Paris Saint-Germain and the Brazilian's successor, Ousmane Dembele, over the last few years. The attack featuring the South American duo and Neymar is arguably the greatest strike force in history, having scored a magnificent 364 goals in 450 games across all competitions between them. They were a cohesive, clinical and mercurial trio that led the team to a historic treble.
A front three with Dembele instead could've worked out, and perhaps still could in the future. Yet, the unfortunate truth is that the Frenchman has been marred by criticism for his lack of work ethic both off and on the pitch, the former being scrutinized arguably more than the latter.
From Madrid to Barcelona
The next world-class name on Barcelona's superstar wishlist was Antoine Griezmann, during or after (the timeline wasn't clear enough) their attempts to re-sign Neymar. The former Atletico Madrid man was subject to the Catalans' interest in the summer of 2018 but chose to stay at the Wanda Metropolitano in quite the dramatic and heavily criticised fashion.
On the second time of asking, he was pretty clearly set on playing for the Blaugrana after Atletico's relatively disappointing season.
Now, the move was perfect for one party and not the other, at least not at the moment. Griezmann turns 29 come March 2020, he's at the peak of his physical ability, won the World Cup with France and is one of the leading names in world football. All these factors are summoned into play, along with arguably the most crucial one: his lack of silverware to show for.
His only major pieces of silverware to show for with Atletico Madrid were a UEFA Europa League, UEFA Super Cup and a Supercopa de Espana, and for what it's worth, a Champions League semi-final. Joining Barcelona at this stage of his career was his safest move. He can earn the luxury of a perhaps more than one league title considering the Blaugrana's domestic dominance, compete on all fronts and play with some of the biggest names in football, most of all Lionel Messi.
The following quote from the Frenchman upon his unveiling at Barcelona speaks volumes about his admiration for his skipper.
I'm very happy. It's a joy for me to play alongside him (Lionel Messi). He is the number one player for me, like Lebron James in the NBA. He is someone that every player can look up to, and he will be a legend to my children - and my children's children in the future.
Pep Guardiola once famously responded to a reporter asking him who he thinks are the favourites to win the Champions League by asking him "whichever team has Lionel Messi". Despite not having won the prestigious award for four years now, Messi's presence will always ensure Barcelona's status as UCL contenders.
If Griezmann does manage to help the Catalans achieve that goal, he will have two of football's most coveted prizes -the World Cup and the Champions League. This would also put him in elite company in terms of honours won, alongside the likes of Kaka, Ronaldinho, Sir Bobby Charlton and his compatriot Zinedine Zidane.
I came here to Barça to learn a new style of play, a new philosophy and to grow on a personal level.
The logical flaw
All in all, it works perfectly for Griezmann. The problem is, though, that he is essentially a square peg in a round hole at Barcelona. Ernesto Valverde's vision for the current squad of players has the Frenchman playing a wider role than what he is accustomed to.
There could be an argument made for the best players in the world needing to display the ability to adapt. Gareth Bale, for instance, switched over to the right flank upon his arrival at Real Madrid due to presence of a certain Portuguese forward on that wing. The Welshman, though, was largely a wide player though his career. Griezmann too has played out wide in the past, but not so much in the last half a decade.
Playing on the left-hand side of the attack under Ernesto Valverde, the flamboyant Frenchman has suffered massively so far.
Griezmann is a dynamic footballer with some unbelievable qualities both on and off the pitch. He's energetic and thrives in systems that enable him a certain amount of space to operate in, much like his role for France.
The 28-year-old, for a few years now, has exclusively been a central player on the pitch, be it behind a more physically imposing striker or leading the line. He would play off Olivier Giroud and had Kylian Mbappe to find when France hit teams on the break. His strikers' instinct, athleticism, quick decision making and sheer talent make him a dynamic threat to deal with and again, all of this comes from a free-roaming central role.
Griezmann has shone through in the 2 games that he has played centrally this season, with the first being praised highly for his stunning performance. Barcelona played host to Real Betis earlier on in the season and the Frenchman led a relatively inexperienced attack in the absence of both Messi and Suarez.
Deployed at the centre of the attack from the start, Griezmann ran riot against Rubi's Betis and ended the night with 4 shots on target, 2 sublime goals, a clever assist and topped it all off with a sparkling NBA-inspired celebration. He was simply sensational and was unstoppable for the hapless Betis defence. What's also interesting, though, is that he had a whopping 88 touches, the most he's had in a La Liga game this season.
Considering that this along with a heatmap to highlight the player's major impact, a clear drop in performance levels would be made evident. In stark contrast to the image above, consider the one below:
Messi and Suarez both started this fixture and Dembele was called upon for the spot on the right flank, leaving only the left-wing available for Griezmann to occupy. Barcelona ultimately fell to a 2-1 loss on the afternoon and the Frenchman much like his teammates had an outing to forget.
In this game, Griezmann registered 34 touches, didn't have a single shot on target, nor a single key pass or cross completed. His impact was nearly negligible on the pitch despite his mercurial talent.
Griezmann is the sort of player who prefers to drop deeper from a central role to attract and disorganise defences before pulling out a majestic pass or playing a quick exchange with his teammate to breach the opposition penalty box. His shooting and technique is simply incredible and helps the former Atletico man score some scorching goals. On the left, none of the above traits really come into play considering that he isn't the sort of player to try and beat his full-back with raw pace and dribbling ability, as famously admitted by the player himself.
I don't know how to dribble, I like to take one or two touches, at pace.
Griezmann is an elegant, intricate player who excels in that space afforded to him in the middle and exploits defences for fun. Perhaps the worst part about him being played out wide is not even the lack of goals and assists, but a lack of basic involvement in the game.
A glimpse into his present and future at the Nou Camp
For all the issues that are highlighted, he's racked up 8 goals and 4 assists across 23 games despite his woes, with 7 of them coming in the league in 17 appearances. Both his talent as well as his struggles at Barcelona could be summed up in this manner: Griezmann's xG90 (Expected goals per 90) is currently lower than it has been in about five years at 0.28, and his xG (Expected Goals) is 2.7 goals lesser than what he actually has converted.
What this means is that playing out wide has directly impacted his goal threat to an alarming level, with his next lowest being the 2016/17 season with Atleti where his xG90 was at 0.34. He still managed to outperform his xG by a massive 4.48.
The fact that Griezmann constantly outperforms his xG highlights his ability to convert the toughest of chances from the slightest of angles. His quality is unquestionable and he should be an undisputed starter, just not on the flanks. As a #10, if he could learn to co-exist with Lionel Messi's zones of play and complement them as opposed to opposing them (CC: Philippe Coutinho), he could still thrive and give the team a more dynamic presence in the middle.
That isn't the easiest thing to do, and look no further than Paulo Dybala and Coutinho, two high-profile, creative and incidentally, central players that have found it difficult to similarly co-exist with Messi. The Frenchman certainly does have his work cut out for him, but is likely to be able to happily adapt considering his respect for the legendary Argentine.
Ernesto Valverde's pragmatic and cautious philosophy and his lack of cohesion (so far) in a disjointed attack are two other major factors here. Considering the highly scrutinised nature of the Spaniard's regime, it wouldn't be surprising to see him being sacked, which could bring about a positive change for the Frenchman. As for the cohesion, it is a time-consuming process, due to which it would be harsh to judge him based on this season alone.
Griezmann would never truly be unleashed at the Nou Camp as a wide player. The diminutive Frenchman that the world fell in love with has to be Barcelona's go-to man to take up Suarez's mantle at any cost. This too appears to hang in the balance considering the Catalans' reported interest in Inter's Lautaro Martinez and only time will tell if they opt to pay the Argentine's release clause.
Should that move materialise, the Frenchman's woes are likely to continue in Catalunya. But, should he be chosen as the man to fill Suarez's boots the day the Uruguayan is finally displaced as the club's leading striker, Griezmann could rediscover his love for the game and fire Barcelona to glory.
Because, at the end of the day, Antoine Griezmann is simply a phenomenal and more importantly a unique football player. Sheerly because of this, out of all the possible outcomes, it is perhaps the likeliest scenario.Published 28 Dec 2019, 08:23 IST