PETE JENSON: Antoine Griezmann’s Barcelona career was about to take off when Lionel Messi wanted out… but now the Frenchman has been shoved on the right and his place in Ronald Koeman’s team is hanging by a thread
- Antoine Griezmann was set to benefit from Lionel Messi’s Barcelona departure
- It would have given him the chance to play centrally that he has been craving
- But Messi stayed and Griezmann has been put on the right by Ronald Koeman
- His form this season has been poor so far and he could find himself benched
Adapt or die is the Darwinian rule of nature that players joining Barcelona in the Lionel Messi era have always had to abide by.
Thierry Henry and David Villa managed it and ended up with Champions League winners’ medals. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexis Sanchez did not and they ended up leaving the club.
Asked about Antoine Griezmann’s current situation at Barcelona, France coach Didier Deschamps said this week: ‘We don’t understand the fact that he is not playing in his position, more centrally.’
Antoine Griezmann has struggled to improve his form in the early stages of the new season
He would have benefited from Lionel Messi’s exit, allowing him to play through the middle
For a long time the answer to that question has been very simple: Messi plays there.
The days of Griezmann scampering up and down the flank for Real Sociedad are long gone. He played his best football at Atletico Madrid centrally behind Diego Costa. And he plays his best football for France centrally off Olivier Giroud.
But at Barcelona the position just behind Luis Suarez was Messi’s.
When Messi flirted with an exit to Manchester City in the summer and Suarez was told to find another club it seemed a revolution was in the offing and that Griezmann would become the new nominal No 10.
Suarez would be replaced by a new No 9 and Griezmann would play off him in the the absence of Messi.
But Philippe Coutinho is playing that role and Griezmann has been shoved on the right wing
It was at that time, when Suarez and Messi’s double departure seemed most likely, that Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman started making positive noises about Griezmann, indicating that it was his intention to bring him in off the wing in an effort to maximise his usefulness.
When Messi stayed, the plan changed, but not completely. Suarez departed (after consulting Griezmann for advice on life at Atletico) and so with Messi nudged forward to a ‘false 9’ position there was still a vacant berth behind. That position seemed to have Griezmann’s name on it.
There was a chance Philippe Coutinho would take it but Griezmann seemed to have the edge – he certainly won the battle of the shirt numbers when he was given his favourite No 7 over Coutinho, who had worn it the season before he went out on loan to Bayern.
But many a slip between cup and lip, and by the time the season had started Koeman had decided to use Coutinho behind Messi and Griezmann would have to play wide right.
‘He’s not a right winger in the pure sense,’ said Koeman. ‘We are not asking him to go on the outside.’ In theory there would be plenty of scope for him to come inside and switch positions with Messi.
Griezmann must improve quickly or he could find himself replaced by Francisco Trincao
There could soon be pressure on Koeman to start 20-year-old Trincao in Griezmann’s place
The idea of Barcelona’s front four – Ansu Fati included – is that everyone swaps places and the opposition get dizzy. In practice Fati, Messi and Coutinho are so far thriving, but Griezmann is not.
Marca accused him of being ‘still stuck in last season’ this week, claiming that Koeman has been able to change a lot at Barcelona but he has not been able to revive the French forward.
Griezmann is not playing badly. But ‘not playing badly’ is not enough when your price tag was around €120million (£108m). In one respect his versatility hinders him.
It’s precisely because he is able to play in various positions that he is shunted out to the right instead of Coutinho. But so far there is not enough adaptability to really shine in this new position and soon there could be pressure on Koeman to start with 20-year-old Portugal international Francisco Trincao in Griezmann’s place. Ousmane Dembele is again an option too after he failed to join Manchester United on loan.
So far Griezmann has played 78, 45 and 60 minutes in games before being taken off. Koeman has not even allowed him to move to Coutinho’s position when taking the former Liverpool player off – preferring to put on 17-year-old Pedri.
Spain youngster Ansu Fati continues to shine for Barcelona during early stages of this season
There is still hope that he can find his best form. His brilliant goal against Villarreal towards of last season was a reminder of what he is capable of and it came as part of a campaign when he scored 15 goals – as many as Neymar had managed in his first season at Barcelona.
But Griezmann got 21 goals in his last season under Diego Simeone, 29, 26 and 32 in the three campaigns before that. He is not going to score the same number playing wider but he knows he should be offering more.
Koeman said last week that he should have scored from the couple of chances that he had. Instead of digging him out maybe the coach could alter the way Barcelona play so he receives more of the ball. Not a single Barcelona attack was launched down his right flank in the first 40 minutes of last weekend’s draw with Sevilla, and in the 90 minutes he received 15 passes, on the other flank Fati received 32.
Things are stacked against him but up to, and including, this last transfer window he has not been interested in a move elsewhere. How long that lasts if he can’t turn the corner at the Nou Camp remains to be seen.