Imagine Mike Bassett on the touchline at the Nou Camp.
Real Madrid were the winners as their two rivals, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, drew 2-2 on Tuesday night to increase Los Blancos’ chances of winning La Liga.
One of the big talking points was the non-event of Antoine Griezmann’s participation in the form of a two-minute cameo in stoppage time.
The Frenchman barely had a touch of the ball against his former club before the referee blew the final whistle.
The 29-year-old’s brother tweeted that he was close to tears (before deleting it) as Quique Setien limited the World Cup winner’s involvement in a crucial fixture.
After years of whispers regarding an inevitable move to Catalonia was, Griezmann finally donned the famous red and blue shirt in the summer of 2019 in a deal worth £108million.
Since then, he’s suffered from PCS (Philippe Coutinho Syndrome), an affliction that leads to underwhelming performances, difficulty living up to expectations, and problems interacting with those close to him.
As with Coutinho, the reason for his relative failure at Barca – but by no means a disaster – is difficult to pinpoint.
Lack of talent certainly isn’t the issue, there’s enough evidence to indicate Griezmann is a world-class forward at his best.
He’s been integral to France reclaiming the international throne, winning the Golden Boot at Euro 2016 before starring at the 2018 World Cup.
Only Harry Kane scored more goals in Russia and no player provided more assists throughout the tournament.
For Atletico, he scored 133 goals in 257 games and in 2015/16 he became the only person other than Cristiano Ronaldo to be named La Liga’s Best Player ahead of Lionel Messi.
Now that his credentials are established, let’s analyse why it hasn’t worked out as planned at the Nou Camp so far.
There’s a certain irony in the answer in that it may be down to a formation Griezmann probably thought he would prefer.
For years, many thought Griezmann’s success was in spite of Diego Simeone’s commitment to 4-4-2, not because of it.
The Argentine tactician is a master of defence and organisation but Atleti have never been free-scoring under his tutelage — truth be told they have been uneasy on the eye at times, though undeniably functional.
The idealist view was that joining a club who prioritise attacking, aesthetic football over everything would maximise a gifted forward’s potential.
But here’s the thing: the vast majority of Griezmann’s best performances have come in combination with a strike partner.
Whether it was Mario Mandzukic, Kevin Gameiro, Fernando Torres or Diego Costa, there was always a centre-forward nearby in the capital.
The similar applies in international football.
Griezmann’s improved performance when playing behind or alongside an out-and-out striker is the reason Olivier Giroud started for France when he was sitting on the bench every week at club level.
Remember, Giroud finished the 2018 World Cup without registering a shot on target.
Didier Deschamps didn’t care because his presence allowed Griezmann to operate at full capacity and that was key to lifting the trophy.
Griezmann has played well for France as the centre-forward in a 4-3-3 but there is no doubt he benefits when a team-mate leads the line.
You have to go back to his Real Sociedad days for the last time Griezmann flourished as a wide forward — he’s morphed into a completely different player since then.
Ernesto Valverde implemented 4-4-2 during his tenure as Barca coach, with Luis Suarez partnering Messi up front.
The formation failed to inspire the La Liga giants who have become overly reliant on the individual brilliance of their Argentine No10.
Valverde’s experiment aside, Barcelona have generally been wedded to 4-3-3, a formation that offers no natural home for Griezmann.
Barca could mirror France’s 4-2-3-1 in an attempt to utilise their £108million asset but that would raise other issues.
The double pivot, Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets for example, would be at risk of being overrun in certain games since the defensive contribution of Messi and Suarez is minimal, even less than Giroud and Kylian Mbappe for France.
Deschamps preferred Blaise Matuidi to more ambitious options (Ousmane Dembele, Thomas Lemar) on the left in his 4-2-3-1 at the World Cup to ensure enough industry remained.
If Barca were to try a similar shape, who would play from the left? Ansu Fati? Martin Braithwaite? Certainly someone with a different profile to Matuidi.
If we’re being kind to Barca, we’ll say this problematic friction wasn’t as predictable as we have made out.
They may have been aware of Griezmann’s dependence on a strike partner and assessed that his overall quality and proven record would compensate for any shortcomings in terms of adaptation.
As the season comes to a close with Real Madrid in a favourable position, the Griezmann problem will be scrutinised more intensely.
The worrying thing for Barca is that there does not seem to be an easy fix.
Even a club of the Catalans’ size would struggle to absorb the negative of impact of multiple £100+million transfers falling considerably short: Coutinho, Griezmann… some would even put Dembele in the same category.
Messi’s 33rd birthday should worry Barcelona; a spectacular unravelling may follow his retirement.
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