·30 April 2023
·30 April 2023
If there’s one thing that stands out about the Antoine Griezmann of the current day, aside from his princess pink hair, it is the fact that he is absolutely everywhere. Your eyes are drawn to him because the ball is. Where it goes, Griezmann finds it, or is it the other way round? Los Colchoneros are a different team this calendar year, defeats to Barcelona aside, the best in Spain, and that is in no small part down to the fact the Frenchman is directing and starring in the entire production.
There are co-stars, of course. But the great debate was once whether Griezmann was at the same table as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – in 2023 he is eating at the top table without a single sideways glance.
It’s easy to explain what makes him good, but not why he’s that good. Sort of everything, and yet he lacks the trademark move that defines some of his peers – a lightning burst of pace, a particular type of finish.
“Antoine is a very, very intelligent player,” says Rodrigo de Paul with a degree of reverence reserved for special cases, when Football España ask what stands out to him.
“In the end, the most difficult thing is to do the simple things. People always try to go for the most difficult things, and sometimes what players have in their head, they cannot carry off successfully with their feet.”
“What he has is the capacity and the intelligence to do the simple things. Everything he does is very simple. And ultimately that is what has made him one of the best in the world,” de Paul continues.
He of all people should know. Aside from playing with him every week, it was against Griezmann’s France when the Albiceleste unleashed the delight of a thousand nights on Argentina. This time last year seems distant and dystopian; Griezmann was receiving abuse from the fans, he looked superfluous in a dysfunctional Atletico side.
Remarkably, you can call it Griezmann’s France. Incredibly, until the final you could argue that Kylian Mbappe’s eight-goal contribution was less significant than that of Griezmann, playing in a new position. On the topic of reverence, how many of France’s squad command enough respect for Mbappe to go out of his way to clear the air with them after he took the captaincy?
Los Colchoneros began the season with Griezmann limited to just 30 minutes of action, and Joao Felix starting every game. The Portuguese has enough people pursuing him with metaphorical sticks and very real statistics, but to illustrate the drama of the change, with Felix on the bench and Griezmann starting, their La Liga win percentage jumps from 50% to 74%.
Felix was never given the freedom to thrive by Diego Simeone, or so the story went. Working alongside a revolving cast of Alvaro Morata, Angel Correa and Memphis Depay, Griezmann has earned the right to rotate, dictate and locate the space. Even if it feels counter-cultural to what Simeone has built his career on, he has all the freedom of a number ten of yore.
“Players like him don’t need a set position,” de Paul asserts. “I think Cholo is very intelligent in that respect, he lets him play where he feels he can make the difference, where he feels he can be most free, or can develop the moves as he feels. He is the only player that has freedom to move where he wants.”
Maybe it’s because he’s left-footed, maybe it’s because he played with him just two seasons ago, but it’s hard not to recall de Paul’s favourite teammate, Lionel Messi. Seeing Griezmann’s winner against Athletic Club, swiping a lose ball in midfield and slaloming downhill towards goal, albeit from the wrong side of the pitch, it’s even trickier not to wonder if some of Messi rubbed off on Griezmann.
“They play similarly, true, they play almost in the same position, free from the forwards. They are the ones that command the attack, and in that sense, in terms of position, they are very similar yes,” the grinning de Paul says carefully.
De Paul goes on, and there is acknowledgement that Atletico Madrid, blessed with hundreds of millions worth of excellent footballers, play for him. Subservience is a little strong, but it’s a conscious deference.
“[He is] One of the most important players for the team, for everything he gives us on and off the pitch. Obviously he has won a lot of things, we try to make sure he is as comfortable as possible, that we give him the ball as much as possible. He is the one who commands the offensive part of the pitch.”
How is it that Simeone, obsessed with the unit, structure and organisation has allowed one player so much power? This being the same antsy, hopping madman who spends his weekends so aggressively gesticulating over a few yards here, or a couple steps over there.
“I love Griezmann a lot,” Simeone said back in September, before the tide had turned in the Frenchman’s favour. “In addition to the affection I have for him, he is one of the most important players in the history of the club.” In February Simeone admitted “when he’s on it, he can do anything he wants.” Two months later he reiterated that “when he is on it, the team plays a different football,” calling him “a good image for his teammates.” Despite only starting once before the 4th of October he has 11 goals, tops the assist charts (10) and is second in goal-creating actions, amongst litany of statistics that all express the same thing – Griezmann is the most decisive forward in La Liga.
“I knew that when I arrived here, I had to make myself small, after what I did to the fans. And I worked. With the effort, and thanks to the effort of my teammates, it’s giving me goals and assists,” Griezmann says with a self-awareness that maybe wasn’t as abundant in the past. The absence of which had him whistled for a season before he left, and whistled again when he returned. Perhaps it’s part of the reason that you see him almost without fail hunting and hounding the opposition by his own box at least once a match.
“He is a leader on and off the pitch, that much is clear,” finishes de Paul, before he bounces off. Griezmann is unconventional. His hair, the collection of sports cars, the race horses, right down to his celebrations, tell you he has no problem expressing himself. Unafraid of public reaction and reluctant to be belittled into conformity, Griezmann has deliberately chosen to be a prince among the proletariat. That world class interpretation of the game places him amongst the best in the world, he has the personality to be superstar, but it is his attitude that has won him the Lionel Messi role in this Atletico Madrid.