Analysing What Antoine Griezmann Would Bring to Manchester United
The Atletico Madrid star is friends with Paul Pogba, has a United-supporting brother and might just be coming to the end of his time in Spain's capital as rumours about Diego Simeone's future swirl. Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport (h/t The Sun) reported back in December 2016 that Inter Milan have "initiated preliminary talks about a move."
If the Atleti manager leaves, Griezmann might want to stay and form part of Atletico's next cycle, but few would be surprised if the France international chose a new adventure. The chance of Los Colchoneros' next manager matching Simeone's remarkable feat of breaking up La Liga's duopoly and making two Champions League finals seems remote.
United's last three summer transfer windows have shown their proclivity for big-name signings—Angel Di Maria, Pogba and even Bastian Schweinsteiger suggest a strategy not a million miles removed from Real Madrid's Galactico policy, which saw them sign at least one superstar every summer for a few years.
If the Red Devils pulled this one off, though, what would Griezmann bring to the party? Most of what follows are unadulterated positives, though there are a few concerns worthy of a mention, too.
We start with the most obvious positive, which coincidentally is the thing United most need to improve upon. The Red Devils have scored 38 goals so far this season, the fewest of any of the top six by eight goals.
Given they sit four points off second place having endured nine draws, of which at least three would have been wins but for profligate finishing, this statistic is felt particularly acutely.
Griezmann would help with this. He was the top scorer in Euro 2016, a tournament he entered after back-to-back La Liga seasons in which he scored more than 20 goals. In 2015/16, he also scored seven in the Champions League.
This season, he has nine in 21 games in the league—in spite of an uncharacteristic five-game dry spell in November and December—and a further three in the Champions League.
All of this is achieved without him being the primary target man in the attack, for either club or country. Simeone uses him as a false nine on occasion—of which more later—but he is generally a support striker.
The Euro 2016 success was hardly a flash in the pan. Goalscoring has been a consistent part of his game since his early days—as early as his third season at Real Sociedad, he hit 10 La Liga goals in spite of generally playing as a winger.
Where Griezmann goes, goals follow.
Simeone mostly uses Griezmann as the more withdrawn of a front two in a 4-4-2. But, of course, that is hardly the only position Griezmann can play.
Between his club activities this season and last summer's Euros, he has also played on the right of a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1, as the right midfielder in that 4-4-2 and as a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1.
He has played as an occasional false nine in a 4-3-3, too, capable of fulfilling the linkup and finishing aspects of a striker's job, if not necessarily the back-to-goal holdup play sometimes required.
He also spent a couple of his seasons at Sociedad playing predominantly as a left winger, just to complete the left-right-centre flexibility trifecta.
At Atletico, he has fulfilled this variety of roles for a singularly demanding manager, too. Simeone is hardly likely to entrust just anyone with such a varied remit. Mourinho would find himself in receipt of a well-drilled player who is capable of doing a number of jobs.
A Selection Headache
His tactical flexibility is also useful because while United need to increase their goals-per-game output considerably if they want to challenge next season, it is not at all clear where a natural position in the first team exists for Griezmann.
There are plenty of contenders for the forward positions at United.
For the left-attacking berth in either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 Mourinho's options are Anthony Martial, an out-of-position Marcus Rashford, Wayne Rooney (who has had a couple of run-outs in that spot this season), and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
If he plays a 4-2-3-1, then Mkhitaryan is competing with Juan Mata and Rooney for the No. 10 spot.
Whichever of Mata and Mkhitaryan does not play at 10—and recently that has been Mata—will be the first choice on the right of the attack in a 4-2-3-1. In a 4-3-3, that will generally be Mkhitaryan, with Mata confined to the bench.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is apparently undroppable at No. 9 in either system, with Rashford, Rooney and Martial his potential understudies.
And, of course, to get four of these forwards—rather than three—on the pitch at the same time, Mourinho has to play with a midfield two, which compromises the best of Pogba, who is forced into a more disciplined, less attacking role.
Where Griezmann fits into that is unclear. He could perform pretty much any of those roles, but his best work has come as a second striker, meaning either Mkhitaryan or Mata will be sacrificed, and Pogba will have to play in a midfield two.
And once Ibrahimovic leaves, would a partnership of, say, Rashford and Griezmann work as a No. 9-No. 10 pairing or would their styles be too similar?
It could get a little messy.
Attacking Dynamism and Creativity
Back to the positives.
Apart from the obvious goals, one of the reasons that the France international's arrival could be worth the tactical headache is his remarkable attacking dynamism.
Imagine Martial, Mkhitaryan and Griezmann playing behind Rashford. United's counter-attacks would be electric. Griezmann is not an out-and-out dribbler in the Martial mould, but he is more than capable of knocking a ball past a defender and beating him for speed.
He has been averaging around one successful dribble per 90 minutes of league football for most of his time at Atletico.
And he has been increasingly successful at combining his speed, dynamism and eye for goal with good linkup play. In his first season at Atletico, he averaged 0.8 key passes per 90 minutes in the league. Last season, that had doubled to 1.6 per game, a number he has maintained during this campaign. In the Euros, he managed 2.2 per 90 for France.
His all-round play is improving, and his goals are not slowing down.
A Contribution to the Press
Speaking of all-round play, it is worth noting that Griezmann is no slouch defensively.
This season, United have been at their best when pressing opponents aggressively. Mkhitaryan's place at No. 10 has been perfect to allow him to do this, with Ander Herrera backing him up. Antonio Valencia has joined in the fun plenty of times, having spent much of this season in the opposition half.
Unsurprisingly for a Simeone mainstay, Griezmann gets through a decent amount of defensive work. Last season, he averaged 1.7 tackles per 90 minutes in the league. As a point of comparison, Mkhitaryan is averaging 1.9 so far this season.
Griezmann also averaged just over one interception per 90 minutes last season—decent numbers for a forward.
United would have to make some tactical compromises to fit him into their team, but his quality and potential contribution would likely more than make up for it.
Advanced data per WhoScored.com.