I have an apology to make.
Seven months ago, I wrote this lengthy column in which I presented a case for Atlético Madrid to return the struggling Antoine Griezmann to his parent club Barcelona. Griezmann’s surprise return to Atlético had been a failure — and if the club’s financial problems were as serious as we were led to believe, it made too much sense to take Griezmann’s wages and that pesky €40 million obligation to buy hanging like a storm cloud over Atleti’s transfer business...and push them somewhere else.
Well, fast-forward seven months, and now we’re asking this:
Griezmann arrived at the World Cup looking as though his career was going in the wrong direction. He will go having re-invented himself and excelled in a completely different role in the space of just a few weeks. One of the top performers. Has this happened before?— tariq panja (@tariqpanja) December 12, 2022
Whereas I am shocked by it, Diego Simeone is certainly not surprised that Griezmann has excelled from the season’s opening game at Getafe in August to now, where he is leading — yes, leading — France’s push to become the first repeat World Cup winner in 60 years.
Griezmann has arguably been the best player in Qatar, and he became Les Bleus’ all-time top assistant after setting up both goals in Saturday’s quarterfinal win over England. Entering Wednesday’s semifinal against Morocco, Griezmann leads the field in assists, key passes, and big chances created.
At 31, Griezmann is once again the heartbeat for his club and for his country. He has leaned fully into life as a number-eight — melding the world-class creativity and work rate that helped to define him as an elite forward for the majority of his career with a drive and a humility he might not have achieved had he not made that ill-fated move north three years ago.
And really, Griezmann’s return to form began at club level. He loves the World Cup — he was the Man of the Match in the 2018 final, of course — but talk throughout last summer centered on Griezmann’s single-minded determination to “rediscover his best form.” He began this season with goals against Getafe and Valencia while largely limited to playing 30 minutes per game as Atlético (pettily) tried to renegotiate that buy obligation with Barça. His turn in the 11 didn’t come until the derby loss to Real Madrid in September, and confirmation of his “official” return to Atlético wasn’t confirmed for another month.
“I’m very proud to have finally been able to get to this point, to be able to renew and to be an Atlético player completely,” Griezmann said after he scored the only goal in a win over Athletic Club on Oct. 15. “I apologize (for joining Barcelona). I know that a lot of people want to hear it directly from me. I’m sorry if I hurt the fans, but the biggest apology I want to make is on the pitch.”
Griezmann is one of the select few Atlético players who obviously listened to Simeone’s pleas to focus on reaching peak form at club level before worrying about the World Cup. Other stars like Yannick Carrasco and José Giménez experienced ignominious early endings to their Qatar experiences. Nahuel Molina and Rodrigo de Paul struggled mightily for Argentina before finding their footing just in time for the knockout games.
Griezmann, though, has been operating at this level all year long. He has comfortably been Atleti’s most consistent player in what has been a dismal season for Simeone’s team.
Griezmann’s eight goal contributions (5 scored/3 assisted) are already one more than he recorded all of last season in 45 percent of the minutes. Fbref.com statistics say Griezmann’s 0.58 goals per 90 mark in LaLiga is his highest in five years; his 0.35 assists per 90 is a career-best. He is also generating shot-creating actions at a career-best clip (5.35 per 90, placing him fifth in the league).
Safe to say this is Antoine Griezmann's Atlético Madrid again. Makes potential sale of Félix in January to reinvest in defense and midfield more palatable. pic.twitter.com/95cIdUeKno— Robbie Dunne (@robbiejdunne) October 28, 2022
In Qatar, Griezmann has been even better, the fulcrum for France — the national team with the richest talent pool in Europe, headlined by superstar Kylian Mbappé. The PSG forward has brought the goals (5 in as many games), but Griezmann has brought the help, directed traffic, done the dirty work. He has created more chances at this World Cup than anyone else, and his actual assists (3) are running virtually even with his expected assist total (2.94).
Griezmann moved all over the pitch with France under pressure for much of the quarterfinal at Al-Bayt Stadium, but he most often floated into the hole between midfield and attack on the right side. No French player took more touches against England than Griezmann (58), who provided a quick lay-off for Aurélien Tchouaméni to open the scoring in the first half and whipped in a cross from the left that met Olivier Giroud’s head in the six-yard box for the eventual winning goal with 12 minutes left on the clock.
Antoine Griezmann is the leading player at the 2022 World Cup in terms of expected threat created through passes. He scored twice as many expected threat points as Lionel Messi per 90 minutes pic.twitter.com/BypbLBUFpy— markstats (@markrstats) December 12, 2022
At this tournament, Griezmann has completed 14 passes between the midfield and defensive lines — according to FIFA statistics, only three players have completed more. The ability to roam around the final third has made Griezmann an essential cog to France and Atlético teams over the years. But shorn of the explosive pace and finishing ability he once possessed, he’s learned to dictate play and weaponize his vision in a new and similarly-decisive way.
And so the player longtime France manager Didier Deschamps has described as an “all-time great” has completed a reinvention several months in the making. Great players find ways to adapt to changing stylistic or physical circumstances in order to continue performing at a high level. Griezmann, who began his career as a quick winger at Real Sociedad, has morphed again — from an all-in-one offensive hub to France’s version of Luka Modrić.
Admittedly, it’s not a perfect comparison. Indeed, ESPN has reported that the real objective from France’s point of view was to transform Griezmann into a player in Bernardo Silva’s mold. But it would not have been possible without Griezmann’s capacity for improvement and his commitment to return to the game’s upper echelons.
“He is in full control of his qualities, and brings a lot to the squad,” center-back Raphaël Varane said Monday.
Look, we can talk about whether time is up on Simeone’s tenure along the Atlético touchline. We can talk about the underachieving squad, who is to blame for everything wrong with it, the inability to make the pieces fit. But Antoine Griezmann, El Cholo’s favorite, is clearly enjoying his football again — and once more standing out on a global stage.
Even though Simeone is likely to say “goodbye” to onetime Griezmann replacement João Félix in January, he’ll be in an optimistic mood for Atlético’s return to action later this month — largely thanks to Grizou himself.