Antoine Griezmann’s ingenuity could be key to France defending World Cup

Attacker’s creativity is undimmed despite his positional change, as proven by his two assists against England


So in the end the France v England World Cup quarter-final did not come down to the putative Golden Boot winner Kylian Mbappé tearing Kyle Walker and the England defence to shreds, or the Manchester City full-back stopping a player who had been the tournament’s best to date. Instead, the spotlight shone once more on a player whose role for France has regularly changed.

Antoine Griezmann has had, to be charitable, a rough go of it at club level since leaving Atlético Madrid for Barcelona in 2019 with his former club hampered by onerous financial restrictions and the departure of Lionel Messi. Even his return to Los Colchoneros and the management of Diego Simeone has hardly been a pleasurable experience, with the Blaugrana and the capital side jousting over the finances of his return to the extent that he did not regularly start matches for his club until after the international break.

For France, though, his level in this tournament has done little to reduce the idea that for as brightly as Mbappé may shine, Griezmann’s spirit, drive and ingenuity may be even more key if France are to win a second successive title. That’s not, of course, to take anything away from Mbappé – he was decent on the evening, despite not finding the net, but it was the industry of Griezmann that made the difference against England.

This will have to continue to be the case for France, even as Didier Deschamps’ side rode their luck thanks to some leaden defending and the penalty miss from Harry Kane. With Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogba, and N’Golo Kanté all out of the picture for this tournament, Deschamps was forced to rebuild his midfield almost on the fly. A former No 6 himself, he was always going to take a prosaic approach, but it was no small shock when he announced pre-tournament that rather than continue with the same 3-4-1-2 that France had played at the European Championship last summer, with Griezmann in a free role behind Mbappé and Benzema, he would play with four at the back.

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Aurélien Tchouaméni was a natural choice as a holding midfielder, with the Real Madrid player hoovering up loose balls at an impressive clip. The role of a shuttling, box-to-box midfielder was up for debate – Youssouf Fofana and Mattéo Guendouzi had both made strong starts to their seasons in France but Adrien Rabiot’s experience eventually won out.

But while Rabiot and Tchouaméni were solid options, and allowed the rest of the team that much more freedom on the back of their efforts, France would seem to miss what Pogba had given them. Despite being much-maligned by fans of Manchester United, Pogba has been, by and large, excellent for his country, chipping in with timely goals and assists while still able to add a bit of steel when necessary.

Without Pogba in midfield, and none of Deschamps’ other options (Jordan Veretout and Eduardo Camavinga are also with the team) really convincing, he asked Griezmann to play a deeper role. Initially a wide player or a second striker playing off Olivier Giroud, Griezmann was deployed as an orthodox No 10 last summer, operating in a creative role behind Mbappé and Benzema, albeit far freer of defensive responsibility than he is at present.

Now, though, despite frequently being the most advanced of the midfield trio, he plays a more complete role, not only supporting the front three going forward, but also adding attacking impetus on the right side of the pitch, with Jules Koundé a less forward-going presence at right-back. Griezmann added a further dimension to his play to help limit the influence of Phil Foden and Luke Shaw. Of course, Griezmann’s creativity is undimmed – his two assists, the second an inch-perfect ball for Giroud, were both clever and well-worked, but he has also taken on a more defensive role when France are not in possession, averaging as many tackles as Tchouaméni.

This unfamiliarity can sometimes set Griezmann back – a booking late in the first half meant that he was on tenterhooks for much of the start of the second. It was no coincidence that this was the spell during which England looked the most likely to take control. In the match’s last stanza, though, he shone the brightest, popping up seemingly everywhere to both break up England’s rhythm and facilitate his team’s use of the ball, knitting play together with a craftiness that was essential to what threat the pace of Ousmane Dembélé and Mbappé offered.

Now France’s all-time leader in assists, he is also sixth in appearances and third in goals scored. Given Les Bleus’ illustrious history, these are no mean feats, and are a fine testament to Griezmann’s talent, even as he has ceded the spotlight for large spells of his career to the likes of Pogba, Mbappé, and for fleeting moments the likes of Dimitri Payet and Benzema. He may still fly under the radar at times, but after winning the Silver Ball at the last tournament, Griezmann looks set to perhaps add to his collection of trophies, at least on a collective level.

More challenges certainly loom for France – Hugo Lloris’ string of fine saves earned him an eight out of 10 from L’Équipe, and he had nearly as much to do with the result as Griezmann. The holders are still yet to keep a clean sheet in the tournament. Their inexperience at the back was also key in the two penalties that they conceded, but on the evening, Griezmann’s display will have been a welcome retort for French supporters irked by claims that Les Bleus are Mbappé and little else.

At 31, the native of Mâcon is now showing that his play, rather than sparkling like Champagne, is perhaps more akin to the famous wines of Pouilly-Fuissé, his home region – well-balanced with equal parts acidity and smoothness, refined yet commanding. This may be the best vintage yet. – Guardian