Judging by widespread reports over the last six months, it seems increasingly likely that Manchester United will launch a bid to sign Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid this summer. The 25-year-old Frenchman has an £85 million release clause in his contract with los Conchoneros and the Red Devils are supposedly willing to fork out such a figure to secure their primary transfer target.
Griezmann’s qualities are unquestionable, and his form over the last two years puts him among the best players in the world. There are, however, reasons why signing the forward might not be the no-brainer it initially seems – most of which stem from doubts over whether he and Paul Pogba can both thrive in the same team.
Pogba is set to lose something this summer, anyway – and that's according to his own manager. “I think next summer will bring a few surprises at this level and probably Paul will lose his status as the world’s most expensive player, which will be a good thing,” Jose Mourinho said in a press conference earlier this month.
It was probably just a comment about the rapid inflation of football’s transfer market, but many United fans giddily believed that the Portuguese had dropped a cryptic hint that one of those “surprises” would be Griezmann’s arrival at Old Trafford.
There are plenty of reasons why supporters of the 20-time champions should be excited by the prospect of their club securing the player who came third in last year’s Ballon d’Or. With Wayne Rooney’s 12-and-a-half year stay in Manchester seemingly coming to an end, and 35-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic carrying the majority of the team’s goalscoring burden, the arrival of a genuinely world-class forward would be more than welcome.
There is also optimism that this transfer is a distinct possibility, too. United have the financial might to pull off such a monumental deal and Griezmann is close friends with last summer’s world record purchase, Pogba.
The former Real Sociedad star has also made no attempt to hide the fact that David Beckham was his idol growing up – it's why he wears the No.7 for Atleti and France. Following Memphis Depay’s departure to Lyon, that same squad number is currently vacant at Old Trafford should Griezmann wish to further align with the former England captain.
Second striker role
But using Euro 2016 as evidence, there's reason to believe that Griezmann’s presence in the United side could come at Pogba’s expense.
Although he made his name as a pacey winger with an eye for a goal, Griezmann has consistently played centrally since joining Atletico in 2014, and Diego Simeone's decision to deploy him there has been vindicated by 74 goals in 142 apperances.
Although capable of leading the line either as a false nine or a more conventional centre-forward in a counter-attacking set-up, Griezmann is most comfortable as a second striker, dropping off the front line and linking with an orthodox No.9.
This season his partner in crime has been compatriot Kevin Gameiro. The pace and threat in behind posed by the former PSG and Sevilla man opens up space for Griezmann, who has found the net 17 times and registered eight assists this term.
Yet when France kicked off their Euros campaign on home soil against Romania last June, Didier Deschamps lined his team up in a 4-3-3 formation. This meant that, with Olivier Giroud as the targetman, there was no second striker position for Griezmann to slot into, and he instead had to play on the right wing, cutting infield onto his favoured left foot.
In theory, playing with a three-man midfield suited Pogba, who produced his best form for Juventus on the left of a central trio – as has also been the case since his Old Trafford return.
France laboured in their early fixtures, though, and, after dropping both Griezmann and Pogba for the second group game against Albania, Deschamps eventually switched to a lopsided 4-4-2. The new system allowed Griezmann to play off Giroud, with Moussa Sissoko on the right of midfield and Dimitri Payet in a slightly advanced position on the left.
Against Romania from the right, Griezmann completed just 14 passes, created no chances and hit the target with none of his three attempted shots. He was again ineffectual in a 4-3-3 for the final group game against Switzerland, with just one shot on target and no successful take-ons, although he did create three chances from open play.
Once Deschamps made the switch to 4-4-2 at half-time against the Republic of Ireland in the last 16, Griezmann hit the target five times, scoring twice. He also completed 49 passes, showing an increased involvement due to the central shift.
It was a similar story in the semi-final against Germany, with Griezmann scoring another brace and completing five take-ons. The Atletico Madrid superstar had come alive in his new role, firing France to the final with six goals and earning himself both the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament prizes in the process.
But shackled by the increased defensive responsibility of partnering Blaise Matuidi in a central midfield two, Pogba disappointed. At the time, his lacklustre displays in this deep role caused many to scoff at rumours of a potential record-breaking return to United.
This isn’t to say that Griezmann and Pogba are incapable of playing together, or that they can’t both produce excellent performances while in the same team. Indeed, on occasion both have thrilled in harmony for les Bleus.
There is, however, a lingering feeling that to get the absolute best out of one over the long term, the other may be forced to play in a sub-optimum position. And when you spend in excess of £80 million on a player, you’d want to do all in your power to maximise their impact. The risk here, though, is that one of the superstars will have to accommodate the other.
The Red Devils have often lined up in a 4-2-3-1 shape this term, with Pogba enjoying something of a free role despite his starting position being in a double pivot. With a little adjustment, this system could incorporate Griezmann; he’s not a typical No.10, but if allowances are made so that he can play a little closer to the central striker, it could work.
Mourinho has saved this formation predominantly for home games against inferior opposition, though, as he's aware that Pogba isn't able to offer the defensive cover required of a player in a double pivot, and would risk being exposed by better sides.
Since Michael Carrick worked his way into Mourinho’s reckoning in October last year, 4-3-3 has been United’s go-to formation in the trickier fixtures. Pogba, of course, is happiest in this shape, but there would no natural role for Griezmann should he arrive in the summer.
He could play as the lone striker – as an alternative to the ageing Ibrahimovic, which maybe wouldn’t be a bad idea in the long run. But unless United are looking to sit deep and break at speed to expose a high line, Griezmann’s influence could be diminished by having reduced space to operate in.
Room at the inn?
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One possible solution would be for the Red Devils to replicate the 3-5-2 system that Pogba excelled in at Juventus under both Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri, with Griezmann partnering Ibrahimovic in attack. This would be a radical change for United, though, and Mourinho has never fielded a back three with any regularity throughout his career.
As far as selection problems go, any manager in the world would kill for the chance to solve the conundrum of how to fit these two world-class players into their line-up. Meanwhile, the commercial benefits of signing a player with Griezmann’s global appeal will probably have already made up minds in Old Trafford's corridors of power.
Yet with such an enormous fee being discussed, it's possible that United might be better off keeping their money in their pocket this time, rather than attempting to squeeze a square-shaped peg into a – if not round – then slightly oblong hole.
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