Griezmann could grow even stronger at Atletico Madrid with some structure
A year ago, a Spaniard (Luis Enrique) told an Argentinian, "Play where you want, move as you wish -- total freedom." Not until that Argentinian (Leo Messi) subsequently had a fixed point of reference, not until his team found and preserved equilibrium and not until the concept of "total liberty" was abandoned did Barcelona explode into irresistible form and win the Treble.
Now, an Argentinian (Diego Simeone) has reportedly told a Frenchman (Antoine Griezmann), "Play where you want, move as you wish -- total freedom." I think there's an argument that not until Diego Simeone reverses that offer will Atletico Madrid encounter the type of balance, order and scoring power that Barcelona established when Messi and Luis Enrique agreed that he should begin all his work from the right wing.
It was after Griezmann produced two goals in Istanbul, where Atleti won at Galatasaray, that the Frenchman revealed this special pact with his ultra-strict, ultra-demanding manager.
"Simeone has told me that I can do what I like in order to create dangerous situations," the 24-year-old explained. "Against Galatasaray, I worked the right, the left and behind the strikers and, fortunately, it came off well. The important thing wasn't who scored but the fact that the team started this competition with a vital away win.
"At the beginning of the season I went to the coach and told him that I didn't really have a preferred position, that I didn't have one area of the pitch where I felt I was stronger. Instead, I told him that I was ready for him to specify what he wanted me to do and I'd make sure I complied. This is the result."
And while the mercurial French striker didn't assist or score as Atletico plundered three big points at Eibar at the weekend -- six points from visits to Istanbul and the Basque country isn't bad for a half-week's work -- he fizzed with energy, creativity and threat. Popping up where he chose to, Griezmann was head and shoulders above of every other player on the pitch.
What emerged, however, is that Simeone now has such a cornucopia of in-form attacking talent at his disposal that it's going to test to the limits of that old managerial cliche: "It's a nice problem to have."
So far this season, Jackson Martinez has scored, Angel Correa has scored and assisted, Fernando Torres has scored and assisted and Griezmann has scored and assisted. Luciano Vietto? OK, barely a sniff so far, but trusted by Simeone and liable to produce winners anytime soon.
To ease any confusion, I'm not arguing that Griezmann and Messi are the same level of talent. It's not a like-for-like comparison given that the Frenchman is an emerging talent, albeit of thrilling proportions, and Barcelona's No. 10 is already finding elbow room in arguments for who is the greatest player in history.
But some of the concepts facing Simeone in the coming months, if he's to turn his team of promise into a trophy-winning unit, are identical. At some stage of the season, every manager needs to find what Spain calls a Gala XI -- your best 11 players.
Injuries and suspension will usually undermine a team's ability to turn out those 11 players all the time. But by January or February, it's important to establish a pecking order so that the best XI clearly understands the degree of responsibility on their shoulders and so that the remaining five or six players fight like hungry dogs to make the most of what time they can claw for themselves.
That's the recipe for great success.
Things clicked at Treble-winning Barca last season from the point at which Messi moved to the right wing and Luis Suarez, previously happy to comply with whatever was asked of him, made the No. 9 position his own. Balance restored, menace and goals assured.
Recently, Simeone has been playing three strikers: two up front and Griezmann on the right of midfield with that aforementioned liberty to pop up wherever he best intuits he can cause chaos and scoring danger. Much of the time, that's going to make Atleti a horrible handful to play against.
They'll assuredly rip up opposition marking schemes. They'll own superiority in numbers in attacking situations, they'll wreak havoc on rivals' video scouting that simply says, "This is what Griezmann does," because Griezmann's positioning and movements will be so variable.
However, three things mitigate against Griezmann being permanently given the type of creative, anarchic liberty that is comparable to Messi at Barcelona in the first five months of last season.
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1. At Real Sociedad, under Jagoba Arrasate, this is precisely how the Frenchman was allowed to play. He's not work-shy by any means, so if he saw a problem brewing deep in midfield, he'd be back there helping out. If he thought that giving La Real numbers on an opposition left- or right-back would yield dividends, he'd switch sides at will.
Often he resembled Wayne Rooney at his most "natural"; the talented street footballer who always needs to be at the centre of things, who'll work well outside a tactical plan and who needs to ensure that either he or his team has the ball all the time. When this functions, it's not only effective for the team, it's a real crowd-pleaser. The fans see a superstar working his guts out, winning the ball, running with it and occasionally scoring wonderful goals.
But football is increasingly strategy-based, increasingly dependent on being presented with an error or space that can be exploited. Griezmann wasn't then and isn't now the sort of tactical genius who knows where he should be at all times or how to avoid being sucked into a situation that can leave his side imbalanced. He's very talented, hardworking, ultra-enthusiastic and a dedicated learner. But he's part of one of the most intricately co-dependent playing systems in Europe under Simeone. Their tactical rigour and intelligence is what has separated the wheat from the chaff in recent seasons in La Liga, La Copa and the Champions League.
Giving Griezmann prolonged liberty to dart and invent as he pleases won't produce a net gain when the very biggest games against the most clever, talented and powerful rivals are totted up at the end of the season. See the recent 1-2 defeat at home to Barcelona in which Griezmann was relatively impact-free. "Barca are the best team in the world, and it's not easy for a striker because they make you chase the ball all night," he reflected.
2. From Atletico's pack of strikers -- each of whom has different levels of experience, ability, specialties and athleticism -- there will probably need to emerge one leader. The logical way forward is that Griezmann either becomes the "second striker" in a 4-4-2 or one of the wide players in a 4-2-3-1. It will shock me if either Simeone persists throughout the season with three strikers in his starting lineup or, if he does, that Atletico are as defensively sound as they've infamously become.
I'd argue that a "big dog" needs to push his way to the fore so that Atleti has a proven leader up front who will provide in the region of 20 to 25 goals. Whichever striker emerges, it's going to become important, by midseason, that he and Griezmann play together sufficiently to work out a relationship that is as near to telepathic as can be achieved. From such understandings is greatness forged and trophies won. Until Griezmann returns to his second striker role of last season, when he scored 22 in the last 27 Liga matches, such partnerships will be fledgling rather than forceful.
3. Atleti under Simeone have been a pressing side par excellence. The type of horrible harassing of which they and Barcelona are capable doesn't come from headlong charges at the ball when it's lost. Modern pressing works systematically, it's a state of mind as much as a state of stamina, and to be thoroughly effective, it must be coordinated.
When a player is creatively anarchic, liberated to go where he pleases, it's literally impossible to then also press with maximum efficacy. Pressing in twos and threes in strictly delineated areas of the pitch, with a clear philosophy about when to mob the ball carrier and when to hang off, can't have one of its first lines of attack in another area of the pitch. Not simply because it's all hands on deck when the full press is on, but because it's vital to be near the ball and ready to pick up scraps (like Messi does so well) if your teammates succeed in forcing the opposition into surrendering possession in a dangerous area.
Success in football often comes from experimentation, from risk-taking and from spotting a latent ability in an already terrific player. So all of this is by no means a criticism of what's currently happening at Atletico. This is simply the observation that from the club's present super-fluidity of striking riches there will need to emerge a pecking order and a more delineated, strategic role for this tremendous French talent.
Welcome back, Rafa
Should Rafa Benitez be viewing his trip to San Mames as Real Madrid manager with gratitude or dread? Throughout his career, Benitez has never beaten Athletic Club in Bilbao. Not with any of the Spanish clubs he's managed, and when he coached his penultimate European match with Napoli, his side were shredded by Los Leones and eliminated from the Champions League qualifiers -- having sat in a winning position.
There's no question that Napoli's 3-1 defeat, after leading 1-2 on aggregate, was the beginning of the end for the 55-year-old Madrileno. One season later, he returns -- but with his dream job.
A Real Madrid-trained, Madrid-born, Madrid-supporting coach in charge of a well-stocked, immensely talented squad. Nice. But it looks more than likely that he'll be missing probably his second- and third-most influential attacking players -- James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale -- plus his talismanic captain Sergio Ramos.
What's more, the player who duffed up Napoli a year ago, Aritz Aduriz with his two goals in that 3-1 win, is in free-scoring form and will love the idea of trying to impose himself physically on Los Blancos while they are likely to miss imperious physiques like Ramos and Bale.
Had Athletic not dumped Napoli out of the Champions League, there's a chance that Benitez might still be in Italy, that the "I'm available" signals wouldn't have been sent to Florentino Perez at Madrid. Perhaps the painful defeat last August was a blessing in disguise.
But with the derby against Atletico at the Calderon (a contest Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid lost 4-0 last season) just around the corner, this fixture (which Madrid also lost last season, 1-0) looms as a hugely significant test for the character of Benitez's squad.
It's a lovely opportunity for him to end his "lots of visits, no wins" record at San Mames. Otherwise, you can expect a noticeable drop in the presently warm temperature in relations between Los Blancos' new boss and the hair-trigger Madrid media.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.