There is absolutely no doubt that Antoine Griezmann is one of the best attacking players in world football. He can dribble past defenders, he can shoot from range, he can scored headed goals and he can curl a pass like an NFL quarterback. But that’s not all the Frenchman can do.
Since moving from Real Sociedad to Atlético Madrid in the summer of 2014, Griezmann’s defensive abilities have improved and improved. Of course, he doesn’t show these newly learnt skills often, as he remains one of Atleti’s primary creative forces, not one of their main destructive ones. But when Los Rojiblancos need someone to drop back and held bolt the door shut, Griezmann complies.
Thanks to the extra defensive work he has put in with Diego Simeone, the No.7’s tackling has improved, both aesthetically and statistically. He now slide tackles with complete grace and has mastered the art of catching up with an opponent who is bearing down on Jan Oblak’s goal and sliding in from the most acute of angles to stab the ball away. Alessandro Nesta would be proud. The numbers back up this improvement too. In his first season at Atleti, Griezmann’s success rate in tackles was 28%, but that has improved to 41%, 40% and 40% respectively in 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18.
This statistical improvement doesn’t just seem to be because Atlético are a defensive team; it’s not a result of the system. Griezmann has legitimately become a better defender and France are seeing the benefits of this too. In the impressive team goal they scored in the 26th minute of their friendly against Colombia last Friday night, it was actually Griezmann who won the ball back inside France’s own third of the pitch. That launched Djibril Sidibé, who then returned the ball to the Atleti man in attack, where Griezmann back-heeled for Kylian Mbappé to set up Thomas Lemar. It was a lovely goal and it all started with a Griezmann tackle.
Besides getting better at defending, Griezmann also now enjoys the art of tracking back and contributing to a clean sheet. “I prefer to win rather than to play well and when Atlético Madrid are winning 1-0 I am back in defence to defend like all the others,” he recently explained in an interview with L’Équipe. “It took about six months at Atlético for me to become used to defending, but now I like it. Sometimes with France, the coach [Didier Deschamps] asks me to defend less, but it comes out naturally. Simeone taught me to defend and I will always be grateful for this. Now I love to defend!”
Of course, Griezmann’s future remains as permanently up in the air as a cloud and there’s a chance that he’ll move clubs this summer. Whoever buys him, whether Barcelona or someone else, will be paying the big bucks for what the Frenchman can do in attack. Yet they’ll also be getting an accomplished defender as a bonus, the plastic toy stuck on the front of the comic book.
It doesn’t get spoken about much, but Griezmann is one of the most complete forwards in the game and one who will help you win football matches in your own half, as well as in the opposition’s. His defensive abilities are severely underrated.
Also published on Medium.