For the third summer in a row, Antoine Griezmann was heavily linked with a move away from Atletico Madrid in 2019. This time, the transfer materialized. Barcelona paid the €120 million release clause in the Frenchman’s contract, making him the fourth-most expensive soccer player of all time (he’s since dropped to fifth in that ranking). Having considered a move to Manchester United in 2017 and flirted with Barca in 2018, Griezmann successfully negotiated his exit from Atletico a few months after his 28th birthday.
Griemzann had been a terrific player for the Colchoneros. Diego Simeone’s side signed him in 2014, a matter of weeks after they had won the La Liga title and reached the Champions League final, where they suffered a painful defeat by Real Madrid. Griezmann was brought in to form part of a new-look strike force following the departures of Diego Costa to Chelsea and David Villa to New York City. Partnered with Mario Mandzukic up top, Griezmann excelled as a second striker and scored 25 goals in his maiden campaign in the Spanish capital.
In each of his five seasons with Atletico, Griezmann scored at least 20 goals in all competitions. In 2015/16 he notched 32, helping Simeone’s side to another Champions League final, where they were again overcome by city rivals Real. He was voted as La Liga’s best player that year – no mean feat given that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were two of his rivals for the prize.
Griezmann was the perfect fit for Atletico. Simeone is a defense-minded manager. He prioritizes clean sheets and his teams routinely score fewer goals than their competitors. Crucially, Griezmann bought into the collective work ethic that is integral to the way Atletico function. He pressed from the front and dropped back to disrupt the opposition’s build-up play. On top of that, his technical quality frequently made the difference for Atletico in the final third. Both with and without the ball, Griezmann was utterly essential to the way his team functioned.
By 2019, it seemed as if Griezmann had grown tired of his role at Atletico. Undoubtedly one of the world’s top players, he was keen to move to a club where he would have fewer defensive responsibilities. He reportedly took a pay cut to join Barcelona, suggesting the move to the Camp Nou was about more than just money. Griezmann reasoned that he had a better chance of winning silverware at Barcelona, but he was also intrigued by the possibility of being free to concentrate on working his magic close to the opposition goal.
Yet from the very start there were doubts over how exactly the 2018 World Cup winner would fit in. At Atletico, he usually played as a second striker. Griezmann was encouraged to take up positions between the lines to receive the ball, before getting into scoring positions inside the penalty box. He was not only Atletico’s leading goal-getter but also their creator-in-chief. The team’s attack ran through him, and although he was still expected to contribute to Atletico’s defensive work, he was given more leeway than any of his team-mates by virtue of the fact that he was the side’s most gifted player.
That was never going to be the case at Barcelona. Messi is the main goalscorer and goal-creator at the Camp Nou. Whether he is nominally deployed upfront, as a No.10 or on the right, Messi roams between the lines, drops deep to get on the ball and gets himself into scoring positions. Griezmann was always going to play second fiddle to the greatest player in the club’s history.
Moreover, Luis Suarez was still a key player for Barca in 2019/20. With him and Messi virtually guaranteed picks, the selection of Griezmann alongside them in the front three meant Barcelona was short of pace in attack. The soccer was not as free-flowing as many expected when you consider the individual quality of that trio. Griezmann still managed to start 31 games in La Liga, but he scored only nine goals – his worst tally since finding the back of the net seven times at Real Sociedad in 2011/12.
Griezmann’s first season in Catalonia was not made any easier by Barcelona’s wider dysfunction, and the fact that he played under two managers – Ernesto Valverde followed by Quique Setien – did not help either. Setien himself has since been replaced, with Ronald Koeman now the man in the hot seat at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona was behind Real Madrid in the betting for the La Liga title in the summer, but both are now available at +110 with DraftKings Sportsbook. The Blaugrana have made a solid start to the season, taking seven points from nine available while scoring eight goals and conceding only one. A 1-1 draw with Sevilla prior to the international break was disappointing but far from the end of the world, and Barcelona looks in decent shape ahead of the Clasico later this month, particularly when you consider how messy the situation was just a few weeks ago.
Yet it is still not clear where exactly Griezmann fits in. Suarez has left for Atletico Madrid – who are offered at +900 by DraftKings Sportsbook to claim the championship – while Memphis Depay remains at Lyon despite serious interest from Barcelona. Even so, the Frenchman’s start to the season does not suggest he is about to recapture his Atletico form. Griezmann has been substituted in all three matches so far have failed to make much of an impact from the right-hand berth in Koeman’s 4-2-3-1 formation. If the Barca boss chooses to switch to a 4-3-3 at any point, Griezmann currently looks more likely to make way than Philippe Coutinho or Ansu Fati.
There can be no doubting Griezmann’s talent, but he has yet to get up and running at Barcelona 15 months on from his arrival. His transfer is further proof that finding the right environment, both tactically and psychologically, is crucial to a soccer player’s success.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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