When Antoine Griezmann pulls on his No 7 jersey on Saturday, the feeling could not be more familiar.
His club situation might have been irregular for a while, but there is nothing more constant than his presence for France. That World Cup quarter-final against England will, we assume, see Griezmann represent his country for a 72nd consecutive game.
It is a crazy statistic.
Over a five-and-a-half-year period, he has started every single France fixture, be it the World Cup final, a qualifier in Kazakhstan, or a friendly against Bolivia. He has never been injured, never had a twinge or a moan, never needed a rest. He is France’s whirring dynamo. Just watch him play — light on his feet, on the move all the time, eyes scanning for where to be and how to affect the game.
Griezmann has also, in this World Cup, taken on a role of particular importance. When it was clear France needed a rethink because of the injuries ruling N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba out of the tournament, few imagined the key to restructuring midfield in a workable way was one of the country’s all-time top scorers (he is third on the list). Yet coach Didier Deschamps has found a midfield solution by asking one of his most trusted players to alter his game.
Griezmann has remodelled himself in a deeper role, lending technical security, game intelligence and tireless work rate to help Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot. “It’s quite freeing,” Griezmann says, “being there in the relationship between defence and forwards, defensively switched-on and helping my team-mates offensively.”
France’s strategy during this tournament — something that has had to click very quickly given how their new defensive and midfield units have been, to an extent, thrown together — owes a lot to Griezmann being a central hub. It might not catch the eye quite as much as Kylian Mbappe (well, nothing does), but it matters. Griezmann is the lesser-sung hero of the defending champions’ run to the last eight.
Here’s the nugget that tells us a lot not just about Griezmann, but also about the collective attitude within the camp: despite all his experience, he has been taking tips on positioning from Youssouf Fofana, the 23-year-old Monaco midfielder whose call-up for this World Cup came a little out the blue, having only won his first cap in September. Griezmann is happy to listen and learn from anyone who might raise his game. (Incidentally, the pair have also stepped up as the main DJs among the French party — another symbol of how young and old alike in this group are all doing their bit to help with bonding and a good atmosphere.)
Griezmann relishes his role as a creator of happy buzz around the camp; a joker, easy to talk to, somebody who brings important value on and off the pitch. He is one of life’s optimists.
It is not a complete shock for him to be working a little further away from goal — tracking back and ferreting to retrieve possession has always been a natural part of his game, even when used as a forward.
What is evident in his performances at this World Cup is his ability to have an impact all over the pitch.
He has an innate sense of where to be to enable him to pickpocket the ball in defensive areas, spray passes to maintain possession in midfield, and dart upfield to join forays into the opposition box. Griezmann brings a certain poise to the team’s makeup. “We need to be balanced,” he says. “Without a great defence, you don’t win the big competitions. We’re all focused on that, even if we have attacking players.”
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Against Poland in the first knockout game on Sunday, he produced a midfield masterclass.
The variety of his involvement was startling. Beautifully crafted long and short passes, dangerous set-piece deliveries, neat flicks and tricks, darting dribbles, harassing and pressing, and busting a gut to get back to intercept or tackle. France’s third and final goal of the match was instigated by Griezmann lofting the ball out of his penalty area. A few seconds later, Mbappe bludgeoned it into the net.
He has always had the flexibility to play in different positions (usually across the front). When he started playing for France in the 2013-14 season, he was a left-sided attacker. After a couple of years, he shifted to the right, also having spells centrally and even as a false nine.
Heat maps of his positioning at the past three World Cups, below, show his changing role. They tell us that in 2014 he was busier on the left, while in 2018 he played higher up the pitch more frequently, as he has done in 2022.
Griezmann has evolved over the World Cups he has played for France.
In 2014 he was the poster boy for a side trying to recover from the wreckage of the soul-destroying tournament four years before in South Africa. France were on a path then, but not ready for greatness. By 2018, he was one of the protagonists of the World Cup triumph, sharing the moment with Mbappe, Pogba, Kante et al. Now, he is the team’s glue.
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The graphic below shows that against Poland he had strong passing links with Tchouameni and Rabiot in midfield, as well as Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele further forward. Griezmann and Mbappe have made the biggest impression when it comes to valuable passes so far in this World Cup.
With Mbappe casting high-voltage spells and Olivier Giroud breaking records, the impact of Griezmann Version ’22 has arguably passed below the radar. England would be very foolish, though, to take him lightly.
It is strange to think of how central he is to France’s success when in his youth he was overlooked by his national team. He even endured a ban from international football for curfew-breaking misdemeanours as an under-21 player. It is fair to say he has learned from his youthful mistakes.
In France’s 118 internationals since his March 2014 debut, Griezmann has only not figured four times (twice out injured, twice an unused substitute).
If anyone knows what it means to keep the games coming for his country, it is him.
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(Top photo: Elsa via Getty Images)
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