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Antoine Griezmann at Barcelona: A tale of chaos, failure, and finally redemption

Shivraj Duggal

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Photo via Imago

Football Club Barcelona have suffered several institutional and financial crises throughout the last five years. Mounting debts, awful mismanagement from the upper echelons from the club, and poorly researched transfers had all left the club in a crippled state in August 2020, when the big Catalan giants fell at the hands of a swift, Bayern Munich stroke of death — rather, eight such strokes.

Between this crisis, perhaps the biggest one of all came in the summer of 2017, when a certain star footballer named Neymar Jr. decided to leave Barça, tired of the board and, perhaps, Messi’s shadow. Since then, there has been a Neymar-shaped hole at the Camp Nou, with the board signing several alternatives to fill over the cracks. Yet, every attempted solution — Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho, Malcolm, among others — seemed only to widen the cracks and leave fans yearning for a presence like the Brazilian winger.

In August 2019, the then-club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, in all his sciolistic tendencies, decided to get his hands dirty with yet another superficial, ignorant attempt to replace Neymar. This time, it came in the form of a €120m investment. Enter Antoine Griezmann.

Having been involved in a documentary scandal regarding his rejection of Barça in the previous year, Griezmann was met with a lukewarm reception by the fans. Some didn’t believe he had the profile to replace the likes of Neymar, while others detested him for abandoning a transfer to Barça in the year before.

If Bartomeu’s intentions were to replace Neymar with a like-for-like left-winger, he couldn’t have chosen a more misguided option than Griezmann. The French striker’s main role, both with France and Atletico Madrid, was that of a second striker. Not possessing the speed or dexterity to attempt take-ons from wider areas, the World Cup winner’s skill lay in his intelligent use of the half-spaces as a creative player while also wearing some of the best finishing boots in Europe.

His role of the second striker did not exist in Barça, a team that would line up in a 4-3-3 throughout the 19/20 season. Unfortunately, but expectedly, Griezmann was pushed out onto the left wing by Ernesto Valverde, and he well and truly struggled to make any tangible impact.

A €120 million player without a role in the team. (Photo via Imago)

While, by no means was it a feeble campaign for the then 28-year-old, who managed 15 goals and 4 assists, it was the massive expectations on his shoulders which he failed to live up to. When a superstar footballer transfers to the Camp Nou for €120m, it’s only natural to expect far, far better than what Griezmann managed to deliver.

With the heartbreak of Neymar’s exit still on many Culés‘ minds, perhaps the expectation that Griezmann would own the left-flank, lighting it up with flair and skills, was the first reason for disappointment. The ex-Atleti player offers a very different profile, often preferring to release the ball almost as soon as he receives it.

Yet, thankfully for both the club and the Frenchman, there was a redemption arc yet to come in the tale of Antoine Griezmann and Barcelona. And under Koeman, this arc unfolded wonderfully. Ironically, Le Petit Prince has enjoyed his best moments playing as a left-winger or left-forward in the Dutch coach’s setups. The most positive aspect of his active influence on the team throughout this season is that he is changing dynamics and become a crucial player, even playing in a position that is totally foreign to his preference.

Antoine Griezmann has sincerely managed to revive his Barcelona career, consistently performing both with direct contributions as well for the team; he is deservedly starting to win favour with the fanbase. Owing to his brilliant fitness, phenomenal attitude, wonderful personality, and character to adapt, Griezmann has begun his renaissance story at the Catalan capital. A story including goals in bagfuls.

Confusion & Isolation

Griezmann managed to start his Barcelona career with a few bright displays, such as his brace against Real Betis in August 2019. The Frenchman seemed to slot in perfectly into the Blaugranas’ possession-based system, displaying neat passing and great finishing.

However, the tables turned soon enough as Griezmann’s involvement in the game began to retract rather than increase. Valverde’s need to surround Messi with natural, pacy wingers on either side could never be met by the previous board. Therefore, he was made to play Griezmann as his makeshift winger, with Coutinho having been loaned to Bayern and Dembélé suffering a constant plethora of injuries.

Far from an ideal start. (Photo via Imago)

With a new role of keeping the width and reduced freedom of exploiting the half-spaces, the World Cup winner struggled to impact the game at all. He was not in sync with his teammates, and his runs upfield were often ignored. In addition, Griezmann had to compensate for Messi and Suarez’s lack of defensive contributions and pitch in the middle and defensive third, as he learnt under Diego Simeone. Such moves would leave the Frenchman far from attacking action, with his attacking partners mostly being the only options available upfront.

At the end of the campaign, apart from one stunning strike against Villarreal, things couldn’t look any gloomier for the Frenchman. The fans wanted him gone, and at 29 years of age, it seemed there wasn’t going to be much room for change.

Struggle & Success

The next campaign started out with the appointment of Ronald Koeman, a coach who had spoken several times about respecting players and playing them in their best positions. In fact, he had mentioned Griezmann before getting the job. “With all due respect, Griezmann isn’t a winger. He needs to play where he has his entire life, showcasing all of his qualities,” he said. It seemed that the French striker would finally enjoy the tutelage of a coach who would respect his position in the team.

An excess of changes took place; several heavyweight exits, tactical, formational, and positional changes. Amongst these changes, one could not count the fortunes of Antoine Griezmann; he struggled once again under his third coach in the Catalan capital, this time even more so than in his previous season.

While Koeman had spoken about not playing Griezmann as a winger, all he did was simply shift him out onto the other flank in his 4-2-3-1 setup, with Coutinho occupying the Frenchman’s favoured position between the half-spaces. In his first six games, the former Atletico player failed to register a single goal contribution.

Griezmann looked like he was en-route to a worse position in the team. (Photo via Imago)

Griezmann cut out a frustrated figure in Catalan, with all his fellow attacking teammates such as Coutinho and Ansu Fati enjoying a relatively successful start to the season. Perhaps it was in this same disdain that the World Cup winner stirred controversy when speaking about not being played in his favourite position at Barça.

During an international break in October last year, the Frenchman featured on the scoresheet in a 2-1 win against Croatia. Taking a dig at Koeman, he said, “The coach (Didier Deschamps) knows where to put me, so I take advantage of the situation, of this position and the confidence of the coach and teammates.” It was evident from his comment that he felt unhappy with his role at Barça.

Speaking on receiving criticism and several comments on his supposedly ‘strained’ relationship with Messi, the French striker reached a boiling point in November. In response, he gave an interview on his problematic life in Catalan.

Since my arrival at Barcelona, I have not spoken. I said at the time that I only want to speak on the pitch, not publicly. I have been putting up with many different comments, and now I’ve said enough is enough. It is time to put things right.

It is true that what’s been said may generate doubts in the relationship with Leo, but I think he knows very well that I have a lot of respect for him. I see him as a great example, and I think Leo knows it.

I have undergone three coaches and a global pandemic and still need time to adapt. There have been comments from everyone, even the candidates for the presidency.

In a truly tell-all fashion, Griezmann revealed several other details, such as his respect for Valverde, strained relationship with Setien, his contact — or lack thereof — with his former agent, both of whom had scrutinised Barça’s locker room. Perhaps revealing all this information turned out to be therapeutic for the French striker, as it directly impacted his performances positively.

In a string of three games, Griezmann registered three goals and one assist, with one strike of magnificence coming against Osasuna. Koeman even joked about the interview impacting the Frenchman, saying, “Get Valdano to come every week” to interview him.

New year, new Griezmann

The Little Prince didn’t enjoy the most productive of Decembers. Yet, in what is shaping up to be a rollercoaster of a Barça career, with the turn of the year, things haven’t stopped going uphill for Le Petit Prince. In pleasant yet somewhat shocking fashion, the centre-forward now has 15 goals and ten assists this year alone for both club and country, meaning he currently has the sixth most goal contributions across the top five leagues.

Incredibly, the Frenchman has even outperformed both Cristiano Ronaldo throughout the year. In 30 matches, Griezmann has 25 goal contributions, while Ronaldo sits at 21 goal contributions in 28 appearances. Outperforming Ronaldo seems not so bad for a Barcelona ‘flop’ after all.

Thanks to the World Cup winner’s fantastic year, he has more goal contributions this season than several world-class attackers such as Sadio Mane, Timo Werner, Raheem Sterling, and interestingly, Neymar Jr.

Coming up clutch

It is easy to dissect the statistics of any player’s season and justify it for any single argument. However, those statistics are pointless if the player does not show up in the most crucial moments of the season. Thankfully, Griezmann has done just that. Several times.

Even looking at both his seasons donning the Blaugrana badge, the argument that the 30-year-old shows up when his team most need him holds up. Of his 33 goals as a Barça player, 19 have served to give the Catalans the lead in matches. An additional 7 have seen them draw level. Therefore, 26 of his 33 goals have been vital in deciding the outcome of matches. Griezmann also has sublime goalscoring form away from home, with 16 of his 33 coming outside the Camp Nou.

This season, Griezmann has scored and assisted in several important matches. He scored a brace against Athletic Bilbao in the Super Cup final, though Barça let the game slip by them regardless. He put up an absolute show in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey campaign. Against Granada in the quarter-final stage he scored two and assisting two in one of the most impressive comebacks of the season.

Even in the second leg of the semi-final stage, it was Griezmann’s wonderful turn and cross delivered into Pique’s path that allowed the Catalans to come back from 2-0 down in the first leg against Sevilla. He also scored the first goal against Bilbao in the Copa final, while having also recently bagged a very crucial brace against Villarreal in the league, doing so with two very stylish finishes.

Antoine Griezmann has been incredibly clutch for Barcelona. (Photo via Imago)

If it weren’t for Griezmann’s contributions in important moments throughout the season, the Blaugranas would find themselves in 4th place on the league table. Additionally, Barça would have only dreamed of reaching the Copa semi-final if it weren’t for Griezmann’s four-goal contributions against Granada.

The Frenchman is world-class without question and has competed in the biggest stages in the world and won the biggest accolade in world football. He is an elegant player with an unbeaten mentality. He never fails to show up when it truly counts.

Adapting to needs

Throughout this whole season, Griezmann has had to adapt and change his roles and functions in the team. Whatever his teammates or the coach needs, the French striker is ready to offer. Not playing, by any means, in his preferred position, the 30-year-old has kept his head down and continued to adapt and improve for the sake of his team.

Even accepting a much less prominent role in the build-up phase — mostly to accommodate for Messi’s use of the half-spaces — Griezmann is ready to fulfil any role that provides maximum benefit to the collective. The World Cup winner talked about the constant change in need, saying, “It’s not my natural position, but I’m proud to be at Barcelona and play with these team-mates. Sometimes I’m asked to mark, other times I lead, but I always work for the team.”

It is this virtue of his that has allowed him to surge back into form. Whether playing as a left-winger in a 4-3-3 or left-forward in a 3-5-2, he is constantly striving to grow, adapt, and change to be his best self.

2 pairs of lungs

Even on the nights that Griezmann does not perform in front of a goal, he always adds to the collective thanks to his wonderful work ethic and astonishing fitness. Koeman even spoke on the French striker’s dedication to the team’s cause. “He’s a team player, he always works and trains very hard. He’s had some bad luck but it’s also true right now he has a lot of confidence,” said the Dutchman in praise.

The World Cup winner has managed to improve several attributes of his game, working hard on his short passing game. In fact, amongst all the forwards in Europe, Griezmann comes in the 99th percentile, in short, passes completed and completion percentage.

Always on the move. (Photo via Imago)

His defensive contributions are also immense for the team, with the Frenchman ranking in at 95th percentile in tackles won and 89th percentile in successful interceptions. His defensive contributions are among the best that forwards can offer in Europe. Such a stat is all the more impressive knowing that Griezmann, in fact, operates in a largely offensive setup.

The mobile forward can always be spotted making runs off the ball, either to accommodate space for his teammates or to make himself available upfront. Against Villarreal, his distinguished run from left-to-right allowed Mingueza to send a through ball into his path, which he converted into a delicate, world-class chip finish.

Sensational even when it seems otherwise

It is not the dexterity or skill to dribble which differentiates the former La Real star from the rest of the forwards in football. He does not possess the confidence or quick feet of Messi to drop a shoulder and leave defenders churned inside-out. Neither can he boast the blazing speed of his fellow French compatriot Kylian Mbappe.

In fact, it is a much more subtle skillset of tactical understanding and quickness in thinking that makes the Frenchman an elite forward in Europe.

Griezmann is adept at playing with his back to goal, meaning he is always available to link-up play in the final third and maintain possession in tight areas around the opposition defence. With 28.45 touches per 90 in the final third, Griezmann ranks in the 94th percentile in Europe; this means that he boasts an active involvement in the team’s play up the field, often linking up play thanks to his intelligent understanding of his teammates and positioning.

In addition, he ranks in the 89th percentile in shot-creating actions from live balls, meaning his passes, dribbles, and touches more often than most forwards lead to shots. Griezmann also ranks high in passes into the final third, coming in the 91st percentile with 2.35 per 90.

Griezmann helps the game flow. (Photo via Imago)

One of the French striker’s most underrated skills is his efficiency in possession. While he may not be the flashiest footballer in history, it is his knack to release the ball as fast as possible to keep the game flowing that makes him latchkey to both maintaining possession as well as progressing play. In fact, dividing the sum of Griezmann’s total attempted passes (1050) and shots taken (58) by his total touches (1276) across all competitions tells us that each touch Griezmann has on the ball, he either takes a shot or attempts a pass 0.86 times. In other words, 86% of Griezmann’s touches are either a shot or a pass, meaning he wastes no time to move the ball on.

This is much more efficient compared to Dembélé — whose touches are constituted by only 70.3% shots or passes — or Messi’s 75%.

Additionally, in data compiled for all competitions (except Copa del Rey), the French striker has a quick release percentage — how many times a player releases the ball via either a one-two with the same player or an immediate pass to another player — of 42.4%. In this stat, he ranks higher than any of his fellow Barça forwards. In fact, his only teammates who come in with a better quick-release percentage are Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba (as well as Pjanic and Aleña, though they have both had a very minimal role through the season).

Griezmann is a footballer with an immense ability to think ahead of the opposition. His ability to release the ball rapidly comes as a direct result of this and works in helping his team circulate the ball efficiently.

Boasting incredible fitness, the 30-year-old is able to maintain the same work rate and stamina throughout ninety minutes on the field, constantly scanning the field and moving according to his teammates’ positioning. Additionally, he has only missed a staggering four games thorugh injuries in a career that has spanned over 12 years. Having such a reliable and ever-available attacker of his quality is crucial to compete in long, congested fixture schedules such as this season.

Griezmann 19/20 vs 20/21: Improvement in every sphere

We have analysed how the World Cup winner has been among Europe’s better forwards this season. Yet, it is his own self-improvement from his previous campaign in Catalan that is the most impressive factor of his season. Looking at an array of statistics, it is clear to see that Griezmann has improved in every single sphere of the game. This is thanks to understanding his teammates better and a more dynamic role under Koeman.

Finally enjoying life in the Catalan capital. (Photo via Imago)

In direct goal output, the Frenchman has already outscored his previous campaign’s total tally by three goals. Additionally, he has scored or assisted 0.77 times per 90 this season, compared to 0.49 per 90 in 19/20.

The French centre-forward has nearly doubled his expected goals per ninety from 0.27 to 0.52. He has also registered nearly three times the assists than he did last season, assisting 11 times already this campaign. His expected assists have also doubled, going from 0.11 per ninety last campaign to 0.23 this season. He is also much more involved in attacking plays, registering 2.61 shots per 90 as compared to only 1.94 per 90 last season.

His decisiveness and creative play in the final third has also improved. With a pass completion percentage of 87.5% (compared to 81.8% last season), Griezmann’s passes travel an additional 13 progressive yards towards the opponent’s goal per 90, meaning his vertical passing has improved. He attempts 0.42 more progressive passes this season. He also averages more passes into the opposition penalty box per 90, improving from 1.01 to 1.28.

Similarly, he is averaging almost one-and-a-half times more key passes per 90 this season, coming in with 1.56 compared to 1.07 in 19/20. In terms of creativity, Griezmann has been involved in 1.15 more shot-creating actions per 90 this season.

The Frenchman is learning to improve his buildup play tremendously this season. He has shown a better dribbling completion percentage of 64.7% this season compared to 51% last season. He has also improved greatly in two key stats, which measure buildup play. xGBuildup90 — a metric that measures all the attacking actions of a player per 90 except key passes or shots; and xGChain90 —the same as xGBuildup but inclusive of shots and key passes. His xGBuildup90 has improved from 0.30 to 0.45, while his xGChain90 has improved from 0.67 to a highly impressive 0.90. Hence, he has a great involvement in plays and buildup that leads to decisive moments in the final third.

On-road to redemption?

The tale of Antoine Griezmann and Barça is perhaps nowhere near completion. Regardless, we truly believe he has earned the title of redemption. Having endured such a troubling first campaign with such difficult, nearly suffocating expectations, Griezmann has truly shown elite mentality. He continuously strives for excellence, working on himself to improve for his teammate. It seems that Le Petit Prince is anything but petit. A massive player with a massive mentality, ready to face adversity with all guns blazing.

It’s Griezmann time. (Photo via Imago)

He has suffered from controversies, displacement, and being a peripheral figure in the team. But he has turned his fortunes around entirely. This is owing to his consistency, tactical and technical intelligence, and most of all: his world-class attitude and mentality. A tale that began with a chaotic transfer was followed up by a failure of a first season, and finally: redemption.

As a loyal Cruijjfista and proponent of positional play: modern football, old football, and the future of football will always and forever be dominated by agile, technically, and tactically astute footballers. Having the passion for this club and the privilege to express my views on Barça makes me forever grateful. ¡Visca Barça!

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  1. Avatar

    Nchari

    02/05/2021 at 14:58

    Griezmann has been great, and that’s something which has really made most Barca fans happy. His focus and his dedication makes home different. He contributes to defense as well as attack.. he’s a blessing after all .. Visca barça

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    Sravan ek

    03/05/2021 at 21:12

    What an article….perfect ok…