Analysis

Can Antoine Griezmann ever thrive in Lionel Messi's Barcelona?

Griezmann Messi Barcelona

Despite being top of La Liga, Barcelona are in the midst of their worst start to a season in 25 years. Should Ernesto Valverde be getting more out of his major summer signing? Kiyan Sobhani takes a closer look.

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Two days before Barcelona lost 3-1 to Levante this weekend, Gerard Pique, in an interview with Spanish radio Cadena SER, went out of his way to state that Barcelona players were ready to alter their contracts to make the Neymar deal happen

"We knew that there was the issue of [FIFA’s financial] fair play and the relationship with the president has always been very good,” Pique said. “Instead of getting paid what we had to get paid that year, we would transfer it to the second, third or fourth [year] so that Ney could come in, if that was the problem.”

It’s not entirely clear who those players ready to alter their contracts were, but it’s safe to assume it’s the same core of players – Pique, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi – who tried to convince Neymar to stay in the first place. 

These comments reveal more underlying boiling points. Both Messi and Pique have publicly discussed their desire to bring Neymar back this season – all while the team is playing through their regular schedule and hoping to avoid distractions.

They did not voice the same lust for Antoinne Griezmann’s signing. The Frenchman would not earn the honour of altering his team-mates’ contracts to be accommodated – nor has he been swooned over the same way. He does not, the players feel, move the needle the way Neymar’s return would. He is not a blitzing left-winger who meshes seamlessly with the attack. 

Now Barcelona, suffering their worst start to a league campaign in 25 years, sit top of the table with a game in hand — a staggering place to be in that only illustrates how consistent this team has been domestically over the years. But Saturday’s loss to Levante, where Antoinne Griezmann played the full 90 on the left wing, only escalated discussions about the Frenchman’s fit, how Ernesto Valverde has used him, and where the team’s fate lies in April when they have to play a difficult Champions League away game with the season on the line. 

Griezmann was everywhere against Levante, a rare bright spot who worked relentlessly off the ball. When Barcelona were defending, the Frenchman was often in his own box, blocking cut-backs and shots, or covering for Nelson Semedo — essentially playing as a traditional two-way winger in a 4-4-2 with Suarez and Messi up top. When Barcelona won possession, they’d morph into a 4-3-3, with Griezmann making lines off the shoulder of the defensive line.

Sometimes he was the deepest outfield player Barcelona had. When Barcelona won possession, he would peel away, darting as an outlet to receive the ball in a dangerous spot.

Griezmann has been made a scapegoat, unfairly. Any resentment towards him should come towards how he fits in the team, not his undeniable talent. This is on Ernesto Valverde to figure out how to use him.

His biggest snag: using Griezmann and Messi together. Messi is the most elite version of Griezmann you can muster – an alien who starts from the right but drops deep to connect the dots while maintaining elite scoring numbers. It’s no surprise that Griezmann’s best performance of the season – a 5-2 win over Real Betis where the Frenchman scored two goals, gave one assist, and generated seven shots on his own in a free-roaming role – came when Messi was out injured.

Griezmann is no stranger to playing in deeper roles. With France during the World Cup, as he rallied one of the best runs of his career while propelling his national team to a championship, he sat behind Olivier Giroud, while Kylian Mbappe and Blaise Matuidi made off-ball runs in front of him to receive the ball in stride. Griezmann was a defensive dynamo, constantly pressing and winning possession in midfield before playing vertical passes.

That was Griezmann as a ‘10’ though, not a left-winger or a central midfielder. France allowed him to roam like Messi does. Barcelona can’t offer his best position with the Argentine around.

“I’ve just arrived, it’s a different position, I have to change my movements, improve,” Griezmann said back in early October. “I need to get into the game more, improve my play on the wing.”

And maybe this is all overblown. Griezmann, in a vacuum, plays well on the left, even if it doesn’t excel his abilities. He’s open to making it work as a wingman rather than that head-alpha he’s used to being. Valverde has been adamant in the press that Griezmann can play on the left. Maybe this entire experiment just needs time.

The early returns from Barcelona have been mixed. They had difficulty breaking down Inter and Dortmund, and have lost to Athletic Bilbao, Granada, and Levante this season. But ultimately, they sit top of both their domestic and European campaigns – buying Valverde just enough time to survive another day and find a blueprint that works. Winning can mask problems, but once that elite team comes knocking at their door, they will find those problems and magnify them, laying waste to underlying issues Valverde has in his tactical scheme the way Liverpool did last season.

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