For a player and playmaker of Christian Eriksen’s calibre, it is an occupational hazard. He frequently draws man-markers. Just not typically of the calibre of the top scorer at the European Championships and the second-highest scorer at the World Cup in 2022. Eriksen’s devoted sentry was repurposed as a forward who cost £107 million and scored in the World Cup championship game. After his team’s 2-1 loss to France, Denmark manager Kasper Hjulmand remarked, “Antoine Griezmann was chasing him.”
If that reminds you of how Bobby Charlton marked Franz Beckenbauer in 1966 and 1970 and vice versa, Griezmann wasn’t just doing that. To begin with, he was assisting: Kylian Mbappe’s goal for France was assisted by a magnificent waft of his left foot that curled a cross. Griezmann may have provided an earlier assist that was just as skillful after splitting the defence from his own half, allowing Mbappe to accelerate before being unceremoniously tackled by Andreas Christensen.
Griezmann is more accustomed to receiving such passes, though not nearly as quickly as Mbappe. But this Griezmann, also known as Griezmann 2.0, is a different midfielder. He has long been at ease playing as the No. 10, but right now he is a No. 8. Didier Deschamps, a World Cup-winning coach who is sometimes criticised for being overly cautious and mostly unoriginal, is sometimes damned with faint praise. But Griezmann has more than ten times as many goals as Deschamps, who only scored four in his century of French appearances. However, he has been moved into the division that his manager previously worked in, if only temporarily.
He became a one-man answer to two issues, allowing Deschamps to field a quartet of attackers, including Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, Ousmane Dembele, and the injured Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante in place of France’s missing midfielders. Deschamps pointed out that Brazil had played with four attackers; if France had done the same, it would have been when they frequently used the 4-3-3 configuration with an additional player in the backfield. Dembele supported Griezmann, occasionally sliding deeper to take on additional defensive responsibilities, but Deschamps mainly relied on his talisman to maintain positional discipline. Griezmann has participated in 69 of France’s most recent international matches, a run spanning five and a half years, but rarely in this manner.
Deschamps stated, “I am asking him for something different from him from club level. Before making the choice, he talked to Griezmann and his teammates, denying it was a snap judgement. However, he had to ask a player with 276 goals in his career to alter his strategy. Deschamps continued, “But the sacrifice is for one reason: he is so kind. He is a smart player who can make the necessary sacrifices and adds balance to the squad. We need to bring balance despite having a large number of aggressive players. He could have replaced Ousmane Dembele up front on the right, but he can play for the others thanks to his imagination and creativity.
It’s a technique that can backfire if some strikers do rejoin the club as they age, sometimes due to a loss of speed: At Euro 2016, for example, England did not do well with Wayne Rooney in the middle of the field. If Griezmann’s work ethic comes from playing for Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, Deschamps said he is enjoying some of his new responsibilities outside of possession. The France manager remarked, “He enjoys getting those balls back. And if we need him, he is excellent on set pieces and can do wonders with his left foot.
A perfectly timed run from deep allowed Griezmann to emerge unchecked to meet Aurelien Tchouameni’s ball from the centre circle. Griezmann assumed one familiar position, as the furthest man forward, and could have taken another, on the scoresheet. The errant finish that followed was not the reason Deschamps came to the conclusion that Griezmann won’t be a contender for the Golden Boot this time. He said: “I imagine he won’t score as many goals in his new role as he does now.
Mbappe might make up for it by acquiring more. In a tale of two scorers from the 2018 championship, the younger man stood out the most. After Mbappe propelled France into the round of 16, Deschamps praised Mbappe as “an incredible talent.” He is a boss. Despite Kylian’s lack of chattiness, he is a steam train on the field.
Mbappe is France’s Train a Grand Vitesse, propelled by Griezmann the new-look midfielder in one aspect and by steam in another. And thus far, Deschamps’ unexpected turn of events has kept France on course for victory once more.