When Barcelona's midfielders are offering more of a goal threat than a €120 million centre forward in Antoine Griezmann there’s a problem, writes Graham Ruthven.
Nobody in blaugrana touched the ball fewer times against Leganes on Tuesday night than Antoine Griezmann did, at least of those who started the match. In fact, the Frenchman touched the ball just five times in the opening 35 minutes, making 16 passes in total over the entire contest (Samuel Umtiti made more despite only coming off the bench for the final 18 minutes). For a game Barcelona dominated, claiming 75% of possession, Griezmann’s lack of involvement was remarkable, even to the point of seeming an anomaly.
It wasn’t an anomaly, though, because this sort of performance has become the norm for Griezmann as a Barca player. It was a similar story against Real Mallorca on Saturday, when the 29-year-old once again made the fewest passes of any starting Barcelona player. The most damning moment of that display, however, came when Griezmann was hooked off for the returning Luis Suarez before the hour mark, with Martin Brathwaite left on the pitch instead.
That decision from Quique Setien provided a stark illustration of where Griezmann is currently in the attacking pecking order at the Camp Nou. Ansu Fati’s impressive goalscoring display against Leganes only added to the realisation that Barcelona have two or three better options than their €120 million man at this moment.
These first few weeks of action after three months off should have been Griezmann’s best opportunity yet to prove why he truly belongs at Barcelona. Suarez, having undergone surgery on a knee injury in February, is not quite ready to play from the start and so Griezmann has been played through the middle in his absence, the role he previously thrived in for Atletico Madrid.
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And yet if anything Griezmann has moved even further to the peripheries of Barcelona’s general play by being deployed as the central striker. It wasn’t until the introduction of Riqui Puig and Arturo Vidal in the second half that the Catalans started playing with some vertical thrust through the middle of the pitch. When midfielders are offering more of a goal threat than a €120 million centre forward, there’s a problem.
Three months at home gave Griezmann a lot of time to reflect on a difficult start to life at Barcelona. There was a lot to think about. A tally of 13 goals in his first 35 games for the club up until the coronavirus shutdown represented a respectable haul, but in the context and nuance there was a lot more for the Frenchman to be troubled about.
Griezmann deserves some sympathy for the way he has been asked to perform a role he is largely unsuited to for much of the season, stuck out on the left wing purely because there is no other place for him in a forward line that also includes Messi and Suarez. That Barcelona were able to convert Neymar so effectively into a left-sided forward so effectively has become a curse in recent years in that the Catalans have failed to do similar with both Philippe Coutinho and now Griezmann.
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The controversial arrival of Braithwaite from Leganes has crystallised the situation Griezmann finds himself in, though. If a stopgap solution signed only due to an injury crisis from a team rooted to the foot of La Liga can get up to speed with the famous Barcelona way and forge an understanding with Messi in the space of just a few weeks, why hasn’t someone of Griezmann’s quality been able to?
It’s almost a year since Griezmann pitched up at the Camp Nou and nobody, not least the player himself, appears to know where he should play and what he should be to Barcelona. With every performance like the ones endured against Real Mallorca and Leganes, the Frenchman edges closer to becoming another Coutinho.