Will Antoine Griezmann ever settle at Barcelona?
Antoine Griezmann's start to life at Barcelona has not gone entirely as planned. The questions surrounding his signing with the Catalan side remain unanswered. They include where he would fit into the team: “Good question,” he responded when asked recently about his best position, both avoiding the question and ensuring there would be further analysis of the topic. There were also the lingering bad feelings over his decision to stay at Atlético Madrid the summer before Barcelona eventually signed him and, more so, why he documented it in The Decision, a cliff-hanger transfer documentary and the first of its kind. Some Barcelona loyalists said they wouldn’t go to the Camp Nou as long as he was in the team. Griezmann, therefore, is fighting a tactical battle, a dressing room that hasn’t exactly opened their arms to him and a suspicious fanbase.
Rocky as his start might have been, as Gerard Piqué pointed out, Barcelona are leading the league and winning their Champions League group while adjusting to a couple of new players in key positions. Frenkie de Jong has replaced the previously ever-present Ivan Rakitić while Griezmann has slotted in to replace Philippe Coutinho. That’s two brand-new players on the left-hand side of the field. De Jong has been, at times, very good, but it's taking him a number of games to find his place in the team. While he doesn’t have the baggage Griezmann does, he also doesn't have the experience.
Meanwhile, Griezmann has been shunted out to the left when Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez are healthy, where players tend to become the third wheel, marginalized by the flourishing and productive relationship Messi has with fulback Jordi Alba. Being a supporting conduit isn’t Griezmann's strong point. While there are opportunities to drift inside onto his right and shoot or create, he is very left-footed. StatsBomb’s bespoke left-right footedness metric has him behind just Clement Lenglet in how much he uses his left foot (78%). If he can avoid using his right, he will, which isn’t ideal for a position where he is supposed to cut inside and cause havoc. Philippe Coutinho, the man he replaced, suffered a similar fate on the left, and was marginalized despite not having to deal with the awkwardness of preferring his left foot; he simply never found a way to add to the already excellent Alba-and-Messi-controlled territory.
But this season Barcelona are suffering from a more general problem on the left-hand side of the field. It’s just being blamed on the new guy. Jordi Alba has missed six games through injury and rest, Junior Firpo, another summer signing (albeit much cheaper than Griezmann), has failed to convince Ernesto Valverde, and Nelson Semedo has been transplanted to the left from his natural position at right-back (and looked good in the process). Messi naturally turns and looks to his left where Jordi Alba used to be while Griezmann has to fight his every instinct to run toward Messi or into the box where Luis Suárez is busy scheming. Alba, on the other hand, runs away from Messi, waiting for the ball to drop onto his big toe. Ansu Fati does the same but is too young to consistently play this role and Ousmane Dembélé is more comfortable on the right. Valverde has often opted for width at home and left Griezmann on the bench in place of the speedier, width-providing wingers. Alba has been fine this season when fit, and his number of pressures have improved, which should help remedy Barcelona’s stuttering attack provided he can get and stay healthy.
As Alba and Messi return to the same page, the question becomes whether Griezmann will join them. The relationship seems off to an unsure start. While the Frenchman has befriended Suárez—the pair organised Diego Godín’s wedding—he has yet to demonstrate a bond off the field with the beating heart off Barcelona. The rumours haven’t been helped by clumsy explanations as to how it’s progressing. You’d think, in such a highly-experienced dressing room, they would kill the speculation with some ready-made lines to release to the press. Defender Clément Lenglet never got that memo. “They’re getting to know each other little by little,” he said. In terms of linking up on the field, they haven’t set the world on fire either, although Lenglet had an explanation for that too. “All of us need to understand how changing position has affected his game—he has evolved at Barça and has taken on other roles—including playing wide on the wing,” he said. That said, there have only been five passes from Griezmann to Messi inside the box; of the twelve total, three of those went backwards. It’s safe to say the hymns both men are singing are very different so far.
You don't spend five years in a Diego Simeone team without becoming a diligent defender. Even if it's not something you completely buy into, you tend to pick up its importance through osmosis. Griezmann’s pressures and regains are amongst the best in the Barcelona team. Fans of the club will argue that they didn’t sign Griezmann to defend, but it does serve a purpose, and will give Alba much more freedom to venture forward when he eventually hits his stride again. This should endear Griezmann to Messi further; if it means Griezmann sacrificing his best play to let Alba raid, he will likely oblige given what we have seen so far. His 3.25 pressure regains is the highest for anyone in the team who has played at least 600 minutes this season. His 1.24 counterpressures is amongst the best in the team too with just Sergio Busquets, De Jong and Sergi Roberto ahead of him.
Much of the problem is that at Atlético Madrid he almost always started on the right or in the centre. His deep progressions are as low as they’ve ever been on the right and his successful dribbles are not very positive either—a sign of a loss in confidence, perhaps, or not fully knowing his confines on the left. Griezmann is pressing more at Barcelona with less success. He has more touches inside the box, which makes sense given Barcelona’s propensity to dominate possession but his shots are down too, a consequence of playing with shot-hogs Messi and Suárez.
He is also not dribbling as much as he did at Atlético and is putting up nowhere close to the numbers Coutinho was clocking with the ball at his feet either.
In terms of expected goals, Griezmann has been forced to work off scraps compared to Messi and Suárez, who shoot in bulk for Barcelona. His best performance by a distance came against Real Betis when he scored twice and assisted one in a 5-2 win. He was the centre of attention that night as the only striker and had the Camp Nou faithful on their feet. Rafinha and Carles Pérez played out wide and fed Griezmann, which suited him perfectly.
Compare that to, for example, the Levante game, when he was in on top of Suárez and had very little connection with him—or Messi, for that matter.
The big question in the coming weeks is whether Griezmann can adapt to his role on the left and if he can’t, whether Ernesto Valverde is willing to change his position. His former agent, Erik Olhats, says he believes Griezmann was “sold a project that he isn’t seeing” and that he is no longer the focal point of the attack, which he has to accept and get used to. Griezmann said he wanted to dine at the same table as Messi a few years ago when he was still playing at Atlético Madrid. By playing on the same team as the Argentine, he is now invited to every meal. It’s not easy stepping into an unfamiliar and relatively hostile environment with Messi waiting for you to prove you’re good enough, but Griezmann can’t say he wasn’t warned about this before he decided to join Barcelona.