DOHA: While Kylian Mbappe dominates the headlines for France, Antoine Griezmann’s performances in a new midfield role have also been crucial for the holders on their run to Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against England.
Griezmann had a difficult start to the season at Atletico Madrid and has not scored in Qatar, leaving Mbappe and Olivier Giroud to provide the goals as France seek to become the first team in 60 years to successfully defend the World Cup.
It all seems a world away from Euro 2016, when Griezmann was the tournament top scorer with six goals as France, the hosts, reached the final only to lose in extra time to Portugal. That was seen as just the start for an exciting team known as the “Griezmann Generation” but it was the emergence of Mbappe that helped them go one step further and win the 2018 World Cup.
Griezmann has since adapted and become more of a support player to France’s biggest star. Now the clinical finisher who averages almost a goal every second game for Atletico is part of a midfield three at international level.
It is a case of needs must for coach Didier Deschamps, who lost the key midfield pair of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante to injury prior to the tournament, before forward Karim Benzema withdrew after arriving in Qatar.
As a result, France have lined up in a 4-3-3 at this World Cup, with Ousmane Dembele and Mbappe flanking Giroud in attack, while Griezmann operates to the right of a midfield three with Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot.
“My role is quite free,” said Griezmann, who has 42 goals for his country but none now in 13 appearances going back to November last year.
“With three players in front of me I have more possibilities and more choices. Maybe I am not as close to the opposition area. I am not going to have 50 shots on goal per game but I am not worried about scoring goals.
“I think the team needs me more at the heart of the action. We need that balance.”
The 31-year-old can now show off his range of passing and his workrate from midfield, while also providing a threat with his set-piece deliveries.
“Antoine has an incredible range to his game. He has fantastic technique, subtlety with his passing, and he works hard for his teammates,” said assistant coach Guy Stephan.
“The new position suits him. You just need to see the smile on his face.”
Griezmann has remarkably now played 71 consecutive matches for France, beating by a distance the previous national record of 1998 World Cup winner Patrick Vieira, who played in 44 games in a row.
There was no question of Deschamps losing faith in the player even as he endured a difficult start to the season at Atletico.
He had largely been reduced to substitute appearances for Diego Simeone’s side as the club tried to escape paying a reported obligatory fee of 40 million euros ($42m) to Barcelona if he played over a certain number of matches. But Atletico bought him back permanently in October after negotiating a new deal, and he had started a total of 12 games before heading to Qatar, scoring six goals.
Now he is repaying the faith shown in him by Deschamps, who gave Griezmann his international debut as a 22-year-old in 2014.
“I owe him so much. He was the one who called me up and we have been together ever since,” said the player who hails from Macon, near Lyon, but has spent his entire career in Spain.