Why Antoine Griezmann Is Struggling to Adapt at Barcelona

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 29, 2019

BARCELONA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 27:  (Editors note: this image has been converted to black and white) Antoine Griezmann of Barcelona reacts during the UEFA Champions League group F match between FC Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund at Camp Nou on November 27, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Pablo Morano/MB Media/Getty Images)
Pablo Morano/MB Media/Getty Images

Antoine Griezmann ended a six-game goal drought by scoring the third goal in Barcelona's 3-1 win over a ragged Borussia Dortmund side in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday. You could smell the relief from him, as the French star has yet to take flight at the Camp Nou.

Before the game—for which he lost his starting position in Barcelona's attack to Ousmane Dembele, only to replace him midway through the first half when his compatriot limped off with a leg injury—Griezmann had only registered four goals in 16 games for Barca, as many goals as Arturo Vidal has scored this season even though the Chilean has been on the pitch a third of the amount of time.

Vidal is a midfielder—not a striker—who cost a fraction of the €120 million Barcelona forked out for Griezmann in the summer, excluding a reported €15 million "peace offering" payment Barcelona agreed with Atletico Madrid last month for tapping up their player before his release clause dropped from €200 million, per El Mundo (h/t AS' Santi Gimenez). 

It's not good enough for the club's star summer signing. He joined with big expectations and was brought in to help heal the wounds from last season's embarrassing exit to Liverpool in the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League semi-final. Compounding matters is that Griezmann had ground to make up on arrival. He wasn't roundly welcomed at the club.

There's rumours his vanity—the ever-changing hairstyle; his choreographed throwing of confetti to celebrate scoring a goal against Real Betis—hasn't endeared him to the team's dressing room. Some have reportedly dubbed him "the little poser." Also, he was late joining Barcelona.

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Griezmann arrived a year older and €20 million more than he could have cost by deciding to stay on at Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2018 (when his release clause dropped to €100 million). Infamously, he dramatised the transfer saga in a maudlin documentary "La Decision." A portion of Barca fans are disgruntled with him, feeling players should only be asked once to come to the Camp Nou.

Antoine Griezmann got on the scoresheet against Dortmund on Wednesday night.
Antoine Griezmann got on the scoresheet against Dortmund on Wednesday night.Joan Monfort/Associated Press/Associated Press

His form on the pitch hasn't helped to build any bridges. Coach Ernesto Valverde dropped him early in this season's campaign from the starting lineup when Sevilla came to the Camp Nou—as league leaders—in October. He just isn't clicking. He's yet to crack Barca's football code.

It's something Griezmann referenced in a revealing interview with UEFA's website earlier in the week when he said he can't read the runs of team-mates Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Dembele and that he "lacks the confidence" to know when to shoot or when to pass.

Part of his problem, of course, is that Messi already owns the No. 10 position Griezmann used to occupy at Atletico Madrid behind Diego Costa, and the role he traditionally fills for the France national team, invariably off Olivier Giroud. (Griezmann scored for his country against Albania last time out in a UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier.)

"Griezmann is failing to function at Barcelona for different reasons," says Ramon Besa, a journalist with El Pais. "Griezmann's position is the one that Messi occupies. He can also play in the position of Luis Suarez. Nevertheless, they place him on the left-hand side in the team's attack. 

"He's a player who can slip free of defenders marking him, but he isn't synchronising with the passes of his own team's runners and with Messi's movements because there's a lack of understanding, and in Barca, they play more and more with the ball at feet and run less. On the other hand, Barca's players dream of having Neymar again, a different kind of player, in Griezmann's place, a footballer who doesn't dribble."

Neymar has cast a long shadow over Barca. During the summer, the club made an abortive attempt to sign him. Gerard Pique told Cadena Ser (h/t the BBC) that senior players in the dressing room even offered to defer salary payments to help make the deal happen.

The magazine France Football—who were in Barcelona during the week allegedly in anticipation of Messi's coronation as Ballon d'Or winner next Monday, according to Cillian Shields of Catalan News—reported that the Argentinian exchanged WhatsApp messages with Neymar after Barca's fateful 4-0 UEFA Champions League defeat last May to Liverpool, suggesting the Brazilian should return to Barcelona so he can "replace" him when he finishes at the club in 2021. Neymar—or the memory of Neymar when he's fit and focused—offers things that Griezmann doesn't.

Antoine Griezmann has had trouble linking up with his team-mates.
Antoine Griezmann has had trouble linking up with his team-mates.JOSE JORDAN/Getty Images

"It's an important point—the footballer the players in Barcelona's dressing room wanted was Neymar," says Francisco Cabezas, a journalist with El Mundo. "Neymar worked in a 4-3-3 system. He could play wide on the left where Griezmann can't fit in the team—so far. What Neymar has is an ability 'to overflow'—to flood defences. He's fast. He can pick up the ball on the wing. He's a good dribbler. He knows how to unsettle defences, things which Griezmann doesn't have.

"The [UEFA] interview Griezmann gave this week was unusual. A great player doesn't normally make these kinds of admissions, but he's a very sincere guy. He said he doesn't know how to dribble. His style of play is different [to Neymar]—he's more about creating space. His problem at Barca is that it's a team that attacks from static positions. Griezmann doesn't have the footballing characteristics to take advantage of this style. I also see a problem of confidence. He's gone backwards—he played his best games for the club a couple of months ago."

Griezmann's lack of chemistry with Messi is also troubling. One, he's struggling to link up with him on the pitch. "I don't think they are deliberately standoffish," says Besa, "but they haven't been able to connect. They aren't harmonising. They're not playing the same game. It's a matter of training and persistence, but we will have to see. There are serious doubts."

Second, Messi is already taking up Griezmann's preferred position on the pitch. It was notable that arguably Griezmann's best performance in a Barcelona shirt was his two-goal salvo against Real Betis last August in a 5-2 win at the Camp Nou—when Messi was out injured.

"Basically, it was a mistake by the club to sign him," says Gimenez, a journalist with Diario AS. "Griezmann's a great player, but he doesn't have a position in the team. If you play where Messi plays, you could join any team except the team where Messi is. It's not a surprise that Griezmann has problems in adapting. What is he good for? If you're living on your own why would you need to buy two beds when you can only sleep in one bed? I don't understand it.

"Messi's different—he has grown up in Barcelona since he was 13 years old, and he plays in the manner of Barca. Griezmann has never played in teams with Barcelona's style. I suppose it's a question of patience, but you could ruin a talent like Griezmann's in the meantime. The team's poor performances are not the fault of Griezmann. They're caused by other things. Griezmann's 'buenisimo' (extremely good), but he's not Messi.

"The solution is to put Griezmann playing on the right-hand side, or as a No. 10, but the day they remove Messi, Valverde will be finished. Sometimes I have the feeling that Griezmann was brought here to run and defend because Messi and Suarez don't do any defending. The only thing he's doing now is defending, but you could have the two guys from the youth academy [Carles Perez and Ansu Fati] that run a lot in there. You don't spend €120 million on a guy just to see him running up and down the pitch." 

Griezmann's bedding-in difficulties recall the recent challenges Philippe Coutinho had in finding a role at the club. He too was a No. 10 who floated around. He was unable to find space for his talents alongside Messi in attack before being despatched on loan to Bayern Munich with the jeers of the Camp Nou ringing in his ears.

Griezmann during his Atletico days against Coutinho, who also struggled at Barca.
Griezmann during his Atletico days against Coutinho, who also struggled at Barca.Alex Caparros/Getty Images

"The problems with Coutinho were different," says Gimenez. "Yes, Coutinho was a player who played in the same position as Griezmann, but one player has nothing to do with the other—Griezmann runs like a dog, up and down the pitch. Griezmann tries. Coutinho never tried—he only came here to Barcelona to enjoy the sunshine."

We have been down this road before. There are other players like Coutinho who struggled to carve a niche in Barcelona's attack beside Messi. Playing second fiddle didn't suit Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, who left in 2010 for a cut-down price after a year at the club. 

Thierry Henry was a lesser player at Barcelona than he was on a fine Arsenal side, but at 31 years old, he did finally get to win with Barca the UEFA Champions League medal that had eluded him.

The Spain national team's all-time top scorer David Villa, too, got to win a UEFA Champions League medal in 2011 with Messi & Co, but his scoring diminished at the club compared to his strike rate in the league at previous clubs Valencia, Real Zaragoza and Sporting Gijon. 

Opinion is divided about how things will pan out for Griezmann. Gimenez isn't "very optimistic" about his prospects. Cabezas is more sanguine. There's a gritty element to Griezmann's character. He's triumphed at clubs since leaving his town in France as a 13-year-old to join Real Sociedad's youth academy. 

Griezmann is one of the world's greatest forwards and twice a Ballon d'Or nominee. His goal against Borussia Dortmund, his first in the UEFA Champions League for Barcelona, could help him to turn a corner. It is, after all, early days.

"We have experience of players arriving to Barcelona and having difficulty in their first season, but they improved in their second season—like Neymar Jr.," says Cabezas.

"In the case of Griezmann, he's not just any striker. He's a World Cup winner with France, when he was one of the best players in that tournament in Russia. He's a player who, in his day, adapted to Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid, which is not easy. He had to learn to defend, to press, to cover ground all over the pitch. He has a good aptitude for learning. He's still only 28 years old. We're only in the month of November. Yes, he has a lot of room to improve, but why not?"

        

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz