Nuance is a word that many football fans have omitted from their vocabulary. As Gennaro Gattuso once angrily said: “Sometimes maybe good, sometimes maybe sh**.” Coaches know how many pinches of salt to take after a performance.
The ones that do not know how to weigh their emotions following a performance are the fans. The same people who watch the games are the ones who know how to judge them the least. Now, football is an opinion’s game. And this is not helped by the existence of social media, which only serves as a platform for discouragement for players.
Culés hear it every week, and now every three days. After every game, win or loss, the grinches come out of their caves to downplay their team’s performance. Against Real Madrid, despite dominating for a significant part of the game, Barcelona were, supposedly awful. A week and a half later, Barcelona were still dreadful against Dynamo Kyiv according to many.
If the team is not appalling, then a player endures the blame game. Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, André Gomes or Nelson Semedo all suffered from incredibly loud criticism because the fans did not like their displays.
An even worse take would be the fact that Barcelona are entitled to win. As a football club, Barça have not tasted defeat on many occasions. However, when they do, they taste rather sour. In recent years, Culés have watched some disastrous games. Remontadas against Roma and Liverpool, demolitions against Juventus, PSG, and Bayern. The worst part is that every game took place at a foreign stadium.
These results have made some Barcelona fans overly pessimistic, especially when Barcelona win after an underwhelming display. Ernesto Valverde, who strolled towards two league titles, often got stick for being too pragmatic. The Basque manager had to deal with the loss of Neymar, and that came at expansive football’s expenses.
Fans criticised Valverde for two and a half years only to be rewarded with Quique Setién. The Spanish coach clearly was out of his depth at Camp Nou and was on the end of an 8-2 drubbing against Bayern this year.
Of course, there is no defending a thumping to Roma or Liverpool after having a big enough lead to go through both times. However, some Culés have taken too far and have started slandering every disappointing game. The main argument is that if Barcelona play like that against a better team, they would get obliterated.
This argument could prove to be true, but sometimes the opponents, no matter how big the disparity in quality is, deserve more credit. Getting outplayed every game by teams like Celta Vigo or Dynamo Kyiv is unacceptable. Getting outplayed once in a while could be the result of a lack of luck for one set of players or too much luck for others.
Valverde was unable to escape the harsh criticism served by Barcelona fans. (Photo via Imago)
Nothing is either black or white, there are grey spots. Sometimes, while Barça are not having their best game the opponents have just upped their game to the highest level. And in some cases it is just the case of motivation while playing against Barcelona. This can be traced back to the now-retired Aritz Aduriz, Marc-André ter Stegen’s biggest nightmare, or Celta talisman Iago Aspas.
It’s possible that some players like big occasions. No matter how players play against others, they might like to play better teams. There is no better example than Cameroonian goalkeeper Carlos Kameni. The former Malaga shot-stopper would turn up against Barcelona or Real Madrid even if he was not enjoying an otherwise great season – or so fans thought.
Culés blew the Dynamo Kyiv game out of proportion. While the performance was nowhere near acceptable, it was taken too far by the Camp Nou faithfuls. Barça did not dominate the play and often relied on the heroics of ter Stegen. However, there are twenty-two protagonists on a football pitch, and each and every one of them has a duty towards the game.
It is not completely irrational to think that some players enjoy the big occasion as an opportunity to etch their name into the coach’s good books. No better example than Sergi Roberto’s displays against Madrid. Some players are just too important, too good, and hurt Barcelona during games.
Barcelona do not go into every fixture leading; at the start of every game, the scoreboard shows 0-0. Each team have to make their way up from there. Players from both teams need the goals, and managers on both sides need the wins.
Hunger plays a significant part in this. While the Catalans go into most games wanting to win, their adversary can also go with twice as much hunger and fight. Especially the teams who live for football. Wednesday night’s game against Dynamo Kyiv is the perfect example.
The Ukrainians were missing thirteen players. They still managed to outplay the Garnet and Blue at times. They bothered Ter Stegen many times and even scored a goal. For this, Kyiv’s side deserve all the credit in the world.
Moreover, their youngsters had a point to prove. They were filling in for established players in Mircea Lucescu’s eleven and managed to keep their honour intact. For example, 18-year-old Ruslan Neshcheret made twelve saves; most of them right out of the dream book. Criticising Barcelona is fair, but downplaying the Ukrainian outfit by saying that they should have lost only because they were missing multiple players is unfair to the plaudits they earned.
Ruslan Neshcheret made TWELVE saves against Barcelona, the joint-third most by a goalkeeper in a single #UCL game all-time.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 4, 2020
The 18-year old making quite an impression on his European debut. pic.twitter.com/DEMRKwRklj
It always gives a good look when one knows how to win, but one must understand how to lose too. Drowning in sour grapes is uncharacteristic. In comparison, Real Madrid, in the same conditions, lost against Shakhtar Donetsk two weeks ago.
From here, accepting that Kyiv had a decent game is a step forward, but summarising the Culés‘ dire performance to the Ukrainians’ is as much of a bad take as hating on Barça’s performance. That said, the Blaugranas must take all three points against Real Betis, who sit four points and five places above them.
Consistently persistent: The Antoine Griezmann story at Barcelona
Going into yesterday’s game against Sevilla, things were finally starting to look up for the team. After all, before that, they had beaten that same squad 2-0 at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium in La Liga and were raring for revenge in the Copa del Rey as well. Ronald Koeman’s new system was looking like a success, and players like Sergiño Dest and Ousmane Dembélé were coming to their own. At first glance, life for everyone at the Camp Nou was finally going in the right direction. Everyone expect Antoine Griezmann, that is.
The news that he’d be starting the all-important clash against Sevilla on the bench must’ve been tough to hear. After all, that was his third game in a row where he would sit on the sidelines instead of being included in the gala XI. For a player of his calibre, reputation and status, that is almost unfathomable.
First, there was the game against Elche. Barcelona managed to win that one comfortably, putting away three goals to snatch all three points on the night. Griezmann, however, would participate only for 14 minutes before the final whistle with no real contribution to his name. That change came on the back of the necessity to rest the Frenchman. Next was the first of the two victories over Sevilla, and that one was even worse.
Griezmann found himself on the bench for the whole duration of the game, not even getting the chance to play in what was a glorious day for the Catalans. With everyone happy for the result, the performance and camaraderie, we completely forgot about Griezmann, our €120 million signing. And that was the main issue. How can you forget about him when he’s supposed to be a key player in this squad?
Then came the third game as Barcelona welcomed Sevilla to the Camp Nou for the return leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. And Griezmann? Well, sadly he was on the sidelines again as Koeman seemingly couldn’t find a way to squeeze him into his new and refined system. But this time around, with Barcelona needing one more goal to force extra-time, the Dutchman was somewhat forced to call upon his World Cup-winning bench-warmer just before the 70th-minute mark.
The ‘Griezou-signal’ was lit, and the former Atlético Madrid superstar sprung into action, making his presence felt almost immediately. Of course, the highlight of his evening was sending Diego Carlos back to Andalusia with that excellent dummy and assisting the goal, but for the most part, the work he did won’t show up in stats.
This is the crux of the problem too. Griezmann does so much for the team, and yet, all of it is so difficult to put into something palpable. Yes, he’s also scoring goals, but when he’s not, he’s often getting attacked for not doing enough. This, needless to say, is harsh and sometimes even unfair.
But it’s also not exactly that simple either. A striker will always be judged by his performance in front of goal. Roberto Firmino of Liverpool is maybe the greatest example. There are not many others of his elk in the footballing world, but despite all the incredible things he makes possible for the Reds, the Brazilian was still harshly criticised once his output had gone down. The same may be happening to Griezmann.
He’s an unbelievable utility guy — a player whose movement both creates and exploits space while also offering an outlet in tight spaces and in transitions. The problem is that despite all of that, the unmeasurable will never outweigh the measurable in the eyes of the fans.
Of course, that’s unfair, but it’s also expected. Not everyone is an expert, and we often take things at face value, which is not ideal but rather the path of least resistance. So it’s always easier to write him off because the stats tell you to do so. Even the eye-test might not initially present you with a palpable contribution worthy of a €120M signing. But it is there, hidden underneath.
And the best part? It’s finally starting to show in the stats too. Let’s take his 57 minutes played against Sevilla as an example. Had it not been for that excellent assist, many wouldn’t have bothered to even look at him twice, but it was very much an incredible display.
According to SofaScore, Griezmann recorded 36 touches on the night, deploying three key passes, one of which was the crucial assist to Gerard Piqué, completed both of his dribbles, maintained excellent accuracy with 23/25 passes and won five out of his six ground duels.
Not to mention, he continued to display his incredible work-rate off the ball, filling in for the limping Pique as a false-centre back. We have come full circle, yes, but the World Cup winner made an incredible inside the box against a pass that was well on its way to an unmarked Youssef En-Nesyri.
So in that single be-all, end-all performance against a tough opponent, the Frenchman has managed to participate in all phases of Barcelona’s play. Now that is what you call a palpable contribution if there ever was one.
But even if you wanted to make an argument that this is not happening consistently enough, stats beg to differ. Griezmann may be struggling but even so, his output is getting better and better with each passing game. Again, consulting SofaScore for all of our stats, it’s fascinating to see him grow over time.
In his first season at the Camp Nou in 2019, Griezmann was only able to register 12 goal contributions (eight goals, four assists) in 23 games. The next year, that figured rose to 14 goal contributions (12 goals, two assists) in 44 games in 2020. And now in 2021? He’s only 17 games in but already at 16 goal contributions (seven goals, nine assists), eclipsing both of his previous two tallies. Quite impressive, to say the least.
Griezmann for Barcelona so far:— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) March 4, 2021
2019: 12 goal contributions (8 goals, 4 assists) in 23 games.
2020: 14 goal contributions (12 goals, 2 assists) in 44 games.
2021: 16 goal contributions (7 goals, 9 assists) in 17 games.
— @SofaScoreINT pic.twitter.com/oE8ETbuZXT
But that is not all. With a total of 27 goals, he is already the third-best French goalscorer in the history of the club, equal with Dembélé and 22 behind the legendary Thierry Henry. His nine assists across all competitions for the Blaugrana, however, mean that he’s recorded more than any other La Liga player in 2021 so far.
So however you turn and however you choose to look at it, Griezmann is still performing admirably. Maybe more is expected from him but that’s only because we know that he is world-class.
However, it still remains to be seen whether Koeman truly believes there’s a place for him in his new system. If so, who would he be replacing anyway? It’s a tough question that’s very difficult to answer and despite his obvious improvement, nothing in life or football is guaranteed.
Griezmann, just like everyone else, will have to fight for his spot in the team. Whether he emerges victorious or not won’t depend entirely on him, though. As for us, we can only wait and hope for what’s best for the club, whatever that may be in the long-term.