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The Griezmann Quandary

Nassif Ali



Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

Barcelona did not have a proper plan in place when they bought Antoine Griezmann. The result is that an extremely talented footballer is looking more and more like a liability. Ronald Koeman seemed to have a plan in place, but his initial deployments does not seem to suit the French World cup winner. Let’s take a look at what really is happening with Antoine Griezmann at FC Barcelona.

Antoine Griezmann joined Barcelona in the summer of 2019, when most of the Barcelona fans and even squad members were asking for Neymar Junior. There were several reasons why they preferred the Brazilian over the Frenchman. Neymar had already established himself in Camp Nou, and shown what he was capable of in his brief stint at the Catalan club. Together with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, he was part of one of Barca’s deadliest attacking trio ever. Of course, he left under unfortunate circumstances, but many of the fans were willing to forget that. On the other hand, Antoine Griezmann invited their wrath by dramatizing and even televising his transfer saga to Barcelona from Athletico Madrid in 2018, only to turn the Catalans down eventually. This insult towards their beloved club is something the fans were not willing to forget easily. Irrespective of this, the Barca board went ahead and signed him the next year.

His first season was just about alright. In 48 appearances, he scored 15 and assisted 4 goals. Not really what you expect of someone, who is an attacker and who cost the club around 110 million. Then again, the first season at a club like FC Barcelona is supposed to be difficult. It is a different approach to the game, and adapting to it isn’t a walk in the park. But beyond all the previous tantrums that he pulled and the absence of a stellar performance that was expected from him in the first season, there is a bigger concern about what exactly is his role in the present squad.

In the previous season he was deployed wide on the left-wing, while Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi filled the central and right-wing positions respectively. This did not work well for Griezmann, as he has played centrally – behind the striker – most of his career, especially in his previous club as well as the French national team. The new position inhibited him and his game tellingly. In November last year, he spoke about it in public that he doesn’t know how to dribble. So what exactly were the managers thinking when they asked him to move to the left-wing?

“I don’t know how to dribble. I like to take one or two touches at pace. I like that the ball comes out cleanly and to shoot at goal.”

Antoine Griezmann

Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

On the other hand, the reality back then was that Barca was playing in a 4-3-3 formation, where there is no place for a second striker like Griezmann or a pure attacking playmaker like Philippe Coutinho. The latter understood this and went on loan to Bayern Munich. He may not have done anything spectacular there, but he got his game and confidence together and was part of a Champions League-winning team, before he came back to Barcelona. Whereas despite rumours regarding his departure, Griezmann decided to stay back and fight for a position. One reason for this was the new manager Ronald Koeman’s statement that players like Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann should be played in their preferred positions. Around the same time, the club was trying to cope with Lionel Messi’s intention to leave the club. It would have made sense in that context to hand over Messi’s position to the Frenchman.

But Messi was forced to stay back, even though his partner in crime Luis Suarez was transferred off. With reports suggesting that Koeman could switch Barca into a 4-2-3-1 formation, it finally seemed like Griezmann’s time had come. He could play behind the striker, whether that was Messi or someone else. Except, that’s when Coutinho landed back from Munich. Initially, no one expected the Brazilian to stay at Barcelona long. After the loan at Bayern, he was linked to a new English club almost every day, until eventually the coach saw something in him and asked him to stay. The pre-season matches saw all the three lining-up in various slots as the manager was trying to figure out his best options.

But when La Liga finally began for Barcelona, the central roles went to Messi and Coutinho. The former was asked to limit his role in deeper areas and to stay closer to the opponent’s goal, whereas the latter was given the mantle of being the creative centre of the team. This essentially meant that the role coveted by Griezmann has been given to Coutinho, at least in the first three matches of the league this season. And the Brazilian practically made the most of it. He has made important contributions in all the three games by providing key passes and assists, thereby cementing his place in the team, in what is his second chance. Coutinho’s stellar performance meant that Griezmann was pushed aside once again. This time to the right-wing.

Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

The understanding initially, I believe, was for these versatile forwards to interchange their positions amidst the game to destabilise the defensive lines. However, Griezmann does not seem to be relishing this arrangement entirely. His contribution in the attack has been minimal and all these three games saw him being replaced by young Portuguese winger Farncisco Trincao. The youngster has impressed with his cameos so far and that raises the question as to whether the manager would eventually drop Griezmann from the starting line up in favour of Trincao.

There is yet another option that has been doing rounds, especially now that Barca has failed to sign a striker in the transfer window. As per these reports, Messi and Griezmann could be made to swap positions, whereby Messi would go back to his position on the right side and Griezmann would play as the striker up top. However, this will come with further complications. One of the best plus points of Koeman’s formation till now was that he kept Messi and Coutinho from getting into each other’s way. This will get muddled up if Messi were to go back to his old position, as he tends to cut-in centrally from the right side.

So will Koeman risk breaking down the balance of his team to accommodate one player (even though this particular player draws a huge salary)? Or would he utilise better, younger options and take the team forward? This, in brief, sums up the Griezmann quandary. There is however one thing to note though. Much as Griezmann likes to ‘take one or two touches’ as ‘the ball comes out cleanly’ and ‘shoot at goal’, he is not really making his case any stronger by missing open chances like those in the crucial match against Sevilla. He may have well cost the team two valuable points and the manager has taken note of the same.

In my thirty years filled with accidental decisions - that got me as far as a PhD in history - one deliberate constant has been football. I have been an avid fan of the beautiful game since the 1998 world cup. Back then, in India, following football meant reading about it rather than watching it. I owe much of my love of the game and passion for writing about it, to those fantastic sports journalists and writers who could recreate the excitement of the whole game in a few succinct words.



Barcelona’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will take time

Domagoj Kostanjšak



Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images

Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner. In early March, the club will finally get their long-awaited new president following the tyranny that was Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure. And perhaps ‘tyranny’ may be a bit too harsh of a verdict, but how else would you call years of systematically destroying the club, consciously or subconsciously, plunging it deeper and deeper into the abyss? On second thoughts, ‘tyranny‘ will just have to do.

But all of that is firmly behind us now. In just weeks’ time, the Catalan giant will rise once more, reborn from the ashes of its fallen self to conquer the world anew. But things in football are never really that easy, are they? Everyone knows you can’t win all the time.

Even the greatest of teams such as Pep Guardiola’s very own Barcelona had their rise, peak and subsequent downfall. And there are not many clubs out there who have faced the harsh reality of building new dynasties from scratch as much as Barcelona have.

Pep Guardiola’s team reached heights unheard of in club football. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

So if history is any indication at all, change takes time and the upcoming presidential tenure at the club will be no different. But let’s get one thing clear right away – this is not meant to bash any of the three candidates nor promote them either. All three of Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Antoni Freixa have their own visions of the direction in which to take their beloved club.

However, to think everything will suddenly and immediately change upon their appointment would be foolish. No, in March, we’re not getting the rebirth; we’re only getting the very beginning of one. With a new president sitting in that chair and appointing a new board, Barcelona will once again lay the groundwork for future success.

The immediate appointment of the new upper hierarchy might boost the morale, of course. And that in itself could then translate to a boost on the pitch as well. But a new president can only do as much in such a short amount of time. The real battles are always fought on the pitches and there, Barcelona are still looking like a broken team.

This too, of course, can be fixed over time. With the appropriate staff behind the scenes, a much better scouting department, physios, psychologists and a step-by-step tactical and squad overhaul, we can start hoping for result. But those are all long-term goals that require patience both from us the fans and the team itself.

Baby steps. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, years of failure in the market, chasing ghosts of our pasts and blind picks, have resulted in a financially distorted club. Where once was wealth and prosperity now we only have crumbs of former glory. Yes, Barcelona are still a powerful outfit that can and should be aiming to attract only the very best.

But we also have to remember that each of the three candidates is seemingly putting a lot of emphasis on going back to the roots. ‘The roots‘ here mean La Masia, the academy and the youth. But just as is the case with any sporting project, especially the ones founded on the strength coming from within, this takes time to develop. Rome wasn’t built overnight. Nor was La Masia or Barcelona’s legacy, for that matter.

The Azulgranas really do have incredible talent in their youth ranks and this is definitely a pool of players that should be utilised in the future. We shouldn’t, however, expect to find the new Golden Generation right around the corner.

We have been fooled into thinking the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi are the standard and the rule. Unfortunately, as much as we like to keep telling ourselves otherwise, they are very much the exception to the rule; the standout and likely a one-in-a-million crop of players that flourished under a brilliant manager.

The peak, not the standard. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

So many things had to be in the right place for them to make it, and somehow, the stars had aligned back then to ensure their development into footballing giants. It would be foolish to expect the same thing to happen again, or rather, to happen that quickly.

But with the right foundations, the right personnel, trust and hope, why shouldn’t we believe in it happening once more? After all, we have the secret recipe for success but are too afraid to use it. Why? Well, the times have changed since Barcelona last ruled the world.

Back in 2009, success was not guaranteed nor was is so expected and the fans were nowhere near as spoilt as they are now. Back then, the coach actually had the time to build a squad, groom them and mould them in his image. That’s what Pep did and miraculously enough, it didn’t take him years, not even months, to start making something truly incredible.

And in so many ways, 2021 mirrors that exact same situation. Before Pep’s time, Frank Rijkaard had been struggling for a while and his team, despite having some big names, was in a need of an overhaul. In that regard, Barcelona were entering their transitional period, the same one they are experiencing now.

Rijkaard bowed out from the stage having finished third in La Liga and having exited both Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the semi-finals. It was a valiant effort for a broken team but ultimately, he finished his tenure with a trophyless season. But in so many ways, that 2007/08 campaign was a start of a new story; one that promoted trust in the youth, power from within and confidence in the beginning of a rise to glory.

So what can we learn from that? We must accept that change is sometimes necessary but that it can cost a lot. In football, results and trophies matter, that’s in the nature of the sport. But sometimes you have to take a step back before you jump two steps forward. 2020 wasn’t easy and 2021 is looking equally as exhausting and challenging. But it’s also necessary.

Already, in a season that may seem full of pain, anger and disappointment, we’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. Players like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araújo rising to the occasion to guide us to a better future. That future may also be without Lionel Messi, the one player who embodies this club the most.

The future, even without Leo, does look bright. (Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

But we should also remember Pep had to lose, or rather let go of Ronaldinho to kickstart his great overhaul. Both players were and still are icons of the club but a new era requires new heroes and new leaders. So even if Messi leaves this coming summer, the world won’t suddenly stop, nor should Barcelona’s strive for greatness.

In March, a new president will get elected and the foundation for a better future will finally be set. It will take time and it won’t suddenly solve all of our problems.

But it will give us a push that we oh so need. Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner.

Don’t give up hope in the moment of our greatest triumph.

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