For Antoine Griezmann, the first few months of this season drifted uncomfortably close to indignity. His status at Atlético Madrid, it seemed, had diminished to the extent that he was a mere curiosity, one of the most celebrated forwards of his era reduced to something between a meme and a punchline.
The problem was not, really, of his own making. A few years ago, Griezmann had left Atlético — the team that had helped to make him a star — for Barcelona. The move, announced in a glossy, LeBron James-style documentary that did little to endear him to anyone, did not work out.
The Barcelona he had joined was creaking and fading, the dull rumble of thunder gathering in the distance. Griezmann played well only in flashes and flurries, not the sort of return expected — or needed, given the club’s increasing desperation — for his eye-watering cost. Last year, he was permitted to return on loan to Atlético, his purgatory in Catalonia at an end.
The complications, though, did not end. His loan deal ran for two seasons. If he played a certain number of minutes in the second campaign, Atlético would be compelled to pay Barcelona a set fee to retain him permanently. Unwilling to commit and hopeful of reducing the price, Atlético sought to find a loophole.
Diego Simeone, the club’s manager, started introducing Griezmann only as a second-half substitute. He played 30 minutes here, 20 minutes there. Atlético never confirmed the rationale, but that Griezmann was being held back as a negotiating technique seemed apparent.
That particular issue was, thankfully, sorted out before the World Cup. But the damage — at least to Griezmann’s reputation — had been done. Barcelona did not want Griezmann. Atlético did, but only on the cheap. He was no longer the impish, inventive forward who had been regarded as one of the finest players in the world only a few years earlier. Now, he was an afterthought.
And then came Qatar. Griezmann is not the most celebrated member of France’s attacking line — that title would go to Kylian Mbappé — and he is not the most prolific, thanks to the evergreen Olivier Giroud. He may not have the world at his feet, like Aurélien Tchouámeni. But there is a compelling case to be made that Griezmann is the most important member of Didier Deschamps’s squad.
Griezmann may not be France’s star, but he is certainly its brain. It is Griezmann who provides imagination, and guile, and craft. That is what has always appealed to Deschamps about him, what has helped him accrue 72 consecutive appearances for his nation over the past six years.
At this World Cup, though, it is another trait that has made Griezmann invaluable. After injuries to Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Karim Benzema, Deschamps had to construct a new approach for the French on the fly. He had to recalibrate his midfield and adjust the positioning of his attack. Griezmann is the one who makes it all work. He has the intuition to alter how he plays, and where he plays, to keep things running smoothly, and the versatility to make sure he thrives wherever he is required.
Griezmann has always had that gift, of course. He has, at various stages in his career, played on both wings, as a lone striker, and as a central, creative force. At club level, it is possible — even likely — that his versatility has held him back. Europe’s major teams now play in high-definition systems, ones in which the specialists required for every role are recruited at vast cost. That Griezmann is not quite so easily pigeonholed might, in some lights, look like a drawback.
In international soccer, though, it is quite the opposite. Even Deschamps, beneficiary of the fruit of the sport’s most prolific talent farm, has to adjust and adapt to what is available to him; he cannot simply buy a solution to any particular problem. In those circumstances, a player like Griezmann, someone who can be whatever the coach needs him to be, is a rare and precious thing: a Swiss Army knife that serves, quite nicely, as a key.