Football’s great rebranding…
France have started this tournament relatively well. Aside from their wildly weird and not great loss to Tunisia in their final game, France have comfortably seen off Australia and presumptive-dark horse Denmark to advance to the Round of 16 as group winners. The reigning champions certainly have as good of a shot as any to leave Qatar as champions again. Kylian Mbappé is obviously the headline grabber for Les Bleus, but there has been another player gaining attention, a player who has quietly become something much different than he was in previous years.
Antoine Griezmann has been a striker his whole career. A natural, instinctive goalscorer. He was the talismanic number nine for Atlético Madrid for several years, being crucial in European challenges and high league finishes and being one of the best attacking players in the world at his peak. For France, he was crucial as a forward or attacking midfielder in France’s run to the Euro 2016 Final and their World Cup triumph in 2018. His lethality in front of goal for his country allowed him to climb to his current position of third all time in the top scorer charts for the French National Team. It seemed that his form was directly correlated to Les Bleus’ success in basically any match.
Which is why it might have perplexed some viewers who have not followed Griezmann’s career recently to see the man line up as a midfielder in France’s games against Australia and Denmark. And not even necessarily as an outright “number 10” attacking midfielder either. In a system that looked as much like a 4-3-3 as a 4-2-3-1 at times, Griezmann seemed to cover both boxes incredibly well, defending and tackling and intercepting almost as much as he was attacking and creating. While he was still certainly operating more advanced than the other two midfielders, Juve’s Adrien Rabiot and Real Madrid’s Aurélien Tchouaméni, he put in the hard work that helped that system be as successful as it was. And Griezmann has paired that hard work with an incredible eye for a pass. He is among the tournament leaders in Expected Assists, Expected Threat, and Chances Created, with his incredible passing technique from open play highlighted best by his assist for Mbappé’s winning goal against Denmark. He is also a very deadly set-piece taker, and while this has not specifically led to goals for France so far, it will undoubtedly be a factor as the tournament wears on.
Griezmann’s evolution is weird. It is wild. A struggling forward has become an undroppable midfielder in the blink of an eye for some people. While he has played in a similar role for Atlético Madrid this season and done very well, this evolution for Les Bleus revolves around one central idea: regardless of where Griezmann is, he is central to everything the team does. When on form, Griezmann almost holds it all together. The man who can help link defense to midfield and midfield to attack, who can create the winning goal against Denmark while also man-marking Christian Eriksen at times during the game. Griezmann makes the necessary sacrifices on the defensive side of the ball while still playing incisive, dangerous passes and creating opportunities deserving of his “Grizou” nickname (and, ironically, this is the tournament in which Griezmann equalled his nickname namesake Zidane in assists for the national team). He puts in work in the press and in defensive duals that allows his teammates to be put in positions to succeed in attack, while also being a player with an unbelievable amount of talent and ability to change a game in a single moment.
How has he done this weird and wild evolution? Well, he is a very good and very intelligent footballer, two things that many have not wanted to admit about him recently but are very implicit in who he is as a footballer. His personality might not be everyone’s favorite, he has had his fair share of inexcusable controversies, and the Barcelona move did derail his form, but many forget just how good Griezmann has been when at his best. He is someone who has adapted to different roles in different systems with different teams relatively well, someone who is much more than simply a goalscorer (even though that was much of his role in the early stages of his career), and he is a player who wants to do whatever it takes to win. Griezmann is immensely talented, with a great understanding of the game and his teammates and the ability to pick his moments and spaces to be the most dangerous and most effective. It is that talent alongside that sacrifice and a sense of responsibility that has been on full display in Qatar.
There are, quite simply, very few players at this tournament who have been as good as Antoine Griezmann has been for France. Very, very few.
He is necessary. If he is good, regardless of where on the pitch he is, then France are dangerous. It is an importance that has never faltered in six years, an importance greater than even Mbappé’s in the team. We saw in the Nations League previously and in the Euros in 2021: if Griezmann is not on form, France are simply too disjointed and dysfunctional to play to their potential. I do believe Griezmann recognizes this, and his desire to play a role that the team need him to play in, even if it is not his preferred role, shows not only his talent to succeed in different ways but the mentality needed to be a leader on the international stage.
Mbappé has been brilliant, but Griezmann has been the key man in France’s start to the tournament. If France want to be champions again, they will need to keep “Grizou” playing at this level. As of right now, Griezmann is my front runner to win player of the tournament, and I do not think that is as controversial of a take as it might sound. The oft-maligned, oft-criticized forward with the eccentric hair and more eccentric celebrations is, quietly, demonstrating who he truly is: a game-breaking footballer who is on track to retire as one of the most talented players to ever wear the French Blue shirt.
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