Will Antoine Griezmann Be the Man to Launch New Era of Success at Man Utd?

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 2, 2017

VITORIA-GASTEIZ, SPAIN - JANUARY 28:  Antoine Griezmann of Atletico Madrid reacts during the La Liga match between Deportivo Alaves and Atletico Madrid at Mendizorroza stadium on January 28, 2017 in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

For decades now, the golf cart has been a prime vehicle of choice for many an important meeting. It's said you don't really know someone until you've shared a golf cart with them. But not since friends and colleagues Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower were pictured on one midway through the last century has an image of two prominent figures on a golf cart been seen as such strong evidence of a "special relationship" ready to prosper.

When Antoine Griezmann posted a photograph to his Twitter account of himself and Paul Pogba sharing a ride on eight-inch rims while on international duty in November, it was all the confirmation the hopeful needed. 

For someone who has since expressed his wish to AS that people don't ask about his future, it wasn't the most subtle of moves. Nor was it when he openly admitted he wants to play with his France team-mate at club level at some point down the line.

"I always ask Paul Pogba about Manchester United," Griezmann told Sky in Germany (h/t Sky Sports). "I think they are a huge club with a really good infrastructure. I ask Paul about some of the players, and if they're really that good, or if Jose Mourinho is really that good. ... It would be awesome to play alongside Paul one day."

Even if Mourinho might have been tempted to Snapchat the Frenchman with an image of his trophy cabinet as part answer, part point of comparison, the Portuguese appears to need no such reassurance about the Atletico Madrid forward. 

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

According to Duncan Castles of The Times, the United manager is lining up a £145 million move for Griezmann and team-mate Saul Niguez for the coming summer. Griezmann's buyout clause stands at a hefty €100 million (£86 million), but if there's anyone who won't bat an eyelid at that, it's United, a club with so many commercial partners their staff are said to ride to work on tractors

United, of course, have previous when it comes to both lavish purchases and luring great goalscorers. Griezmann's close friend Pogba headlines the first category; names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robin van Persie, Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Andy Cole populate the latter. 

If Griezmann is potentially next, he carries a significance that is in line or perhaps surpasses many of the aforementioned.

In being voted the world's third best footballer for 2016 in the recent Ballon d'Or, the Frenchman is the first player in almost 10 years to reach the podium from outside the Barcelona-Real Madrid-Bayern Munich triangle. The man to do that before him was Fernando Torres in 2008 while at Liverpool—yeah, that long ago. 

In a world where pinching the biggest names from Europe's trio of super clubs has been like trying to take lunch money from the kids who continue to dunk your head in the toilet, what that means is Griezmann might be one of the best two or three players realistically able to be bought in a decade. After all, when was the last time someone this good and this influential was within reach of the Premier League? 

For United fans, though Adobe has taken away the wonder of what he might look like in red, picturing him linking with Pogba and Co. will do more than conjure images of finely tuned dabs combining with Drake imitations. 

A phrase regularly used for mobile forwards is that they "can play anywhere across the front line." It's often a fallacy, but with Griezmann, it isn't. At Atletico, he plays anywhere and everywhere: left, right and down the middle; up front in a pair or on his own; deeper and central to create; out wide to balance and stretch. 

Such versatility would make him a dream for Mourinho. In Griezmann, the United boss could potentially have an attacking Swiss army knife, equally adept at opening the Merlot as gutting a fish. Picturing him linking with Ibrahimovic as a second striker or a supporting No. 10 is rather fun. Ditto for him flying in from out wide, bringing goals back to the wings at Old Trafford. 

Of course, not all signings hit it off with Mourinho, but you sense Griezmann would be just fine. Ever since his Real Madrid were defeated by Atletico in the 2013 Copa del Rey final, the Portuguese has actively pursued men moulded by Diego Simeone: Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and even Radamel Falcao. There's good reason for that. 

Mourinho evidently sees much of what he demands in those who've worked with Atleti's astonishing manager. No group in Europe has been so defined by work rate, resilience, aggression and defensive commitment as Atletico during Simeone's tenure. 

For Griezmann, adapting to such an environment required time. It took him until almost Christmas in his first season at the Vicente Calderon to become a regular. Simeone pushed him, tested him and made him sweat—literally.

"At first I struggled with El Cholo because he was so different from what I experienced at La Real and France. He works with a different mentality," the Frenchman told Al Primer Toque (h/t Football Espana) in early 2015.  

But the man signed from Real Sociedad has since met Simeone's demands and then some. His defensive contribution has become immense: He's the one who leads when Atleti press; he's the one who aggressively fills holes and closes space when they drop deeper. No forward in Spain works harder, which is remarkable given the extent of his influence going the other way. 

In two-and-a-half seasons on the banks of the Manzanares, Griezmann has tallied 72 goals. His nearest competitor in that time is Torres with 21. And this, remember, is not Barcelona or Real Madrid, where chances arrive with the frequency of pizza-delivery coupons through the post. This is Atletico, where grinding and "suffering" are the norm, where you have to take the few that come—and Griezmann takes them all right. 

The star of Euro 2016 is the killer in the box United need to support Ibrahimovic and eventually succeed him. There's a compelling nature to the way he moves and finishes, somehow explosive and graceful at the same time, his head always up, his balance immaculate, forever sidestepping the challenge. 

This all comes from a player who's still only 25. As a forward, Griezmann is now only entering his prime years, a time when the body is sharp but the mind is calm. 

If United could get him—and that remains an "if" for now—there's the look of an emerging spine there that could stand for close to a decade: David De Gea in goal, Eric Bailly at the back, Pogba in the middle and Griez Lightning up front, where the chicks'll scream and all.  

If Mourinho hasn't quite yet pushed United into a new era of success, then the signing of Griezmann could mark the moment he does, again reinforcing the club's power in the market and its renewed lure as a destination. 

For a new era to begin, however, another has to end. Atletico will play a role here, and the coming months could prove influential.

The sense right now is that Atleti are approaching the end of cycle with doubt surrounding the future of not just major stars but also of Simeone. In La Liga, the men from the Calderon have been usurped by Sevilla, they sit 10 points back of Real Madrid—who have a game in hand—and they just don't look right. 

It's as though the bubbles have been let out of the bottle for Atleti. That edge that made them different isn't there anymore. A Champions League title for which they're still competing could change all of that, but you suspect Atletico are aware this is the beginning of the end. 

"There are many offers," club president Enrique Cerezo said last month of the interest in Griezmann. "I don't know what will come of Manchester United's interest." Simeone added: "I don't tie anybody down. ... I'm not surprised that those that can afford him are seeking him."

At the head of that queue is United, a behemoth lurking in search of propulsion. Griezmann could be the man to give it to them.