Lionel Messi out; Luis Suarez out; Ousmane Dembele out.
The footballing gods threw down a challenge to Antoine Griezmann on Sunday night: prove you can step up and be The Man for Barcelona.
Griezmann answered the call magnificently, scoring two well-taken goals – a Suarez-style first-time volley from a right wing cross and a Messi-style left-footed curler into the far corner from the edge of the box – to propel his team to a highly entertaining 5-2 victory over Real Betis at the Camp Nou.
He did not only impress with his goals, however, also producing a highly influential all-round performance by linking play superbly, regularly dropping deep into midfield and drifting out to the flanks to maintain the team’s high tempo by finding his new colleagues with deft first-time passes.
And, as you would expect from someone who spent five years under the tutelage of Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, Griezmann also did more than his fair share of defensive work, leading Barca’s pressing with apparently endless reserves of energy.
All told, Griezmann looked very much like a man on a mission on Sunday night, and by the end of the evening he had certainly accomplished all his tasks and more – even providing an instant front page photo for the global media with a glitter-tossing celebration after his second goal.
Now the stardust is starting to settle, however, his compelling display leaves manager Ernesto Valverde with a question which is simple enough to ask but carries layers of complexity in the answer: what happens next?
Before too long, Messi, Suarez and Dembele will be fit and ready to play, with the veteran South American duo very much expecting to immediately regain their places in the starting line-up.
Griezmann, we can be sure, will regain his place. But it won’t be the same place he occupied to such great effect on Sunday night as the central figure of a three-man forward line. That would require Suarez to move out to the left wing and Messi to hog the right touchline in the same manner as Rafinha and Carles Perez this weekend, which is very hard to envisage.
Instead, Suarez will return to the centre forward position with Messi in the inside-right spot he has occupied for much of the last five years, leaving Griezmann to occupy the vacant area on the left of the attack (unless, of course, Neymar is recruited in the interim…but let’s not go down that particular dead end for now).
This tactical set-up would vastly alter the role Griezmann would be expected to play. Rather than floating freely from a central starting point with a full license to roam in associative play before returning to the penalty area as the main target for crosses – as he did with his opener on Sunday – he would be tasked with the more limited demands of a left winger. He can, of course, still be an effective and important performer from that position, but not the shining focal point as he was against Betis.
And it’s not only Griezmann’s playing position which could be affected by the return of the senior duo, because they would be hard pushed to replicate the all-action, high-energy approach exhibited by Perez and Rafinha from their wide roles this weekend.
The question this leads to, perhaps, is whether Suarez and Griezmann will be able to play together. Messi, without doubt, will be an unquestionable starter and it’s easy to imagine him playing off Griezmann in a central role while two from Rafinha, Perez, Dembele, Sergi Roberto and, yes, Neymar busy themselves down the flanks.
But where does Suarez fit into this without significantly impacting upon both Griezmann’s individual effectiveness and the overall style of the team?
Perhaps he doesn’t. Perhaps Sunday’s show-stopping performance from Griezmann was the beginning of a new era for the Uruguayan, one in which he becomes a supersub and a rotation option.
The man to decide all this, of course, is Valverde. How bold is he prepared to be?
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