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Give Griezmann his due: France's hybrid hero has found his best role after lost years at Barcelona and Atletico

12:08 PM GMT+4 04/12/2022
Antoine Griezmann France Australia 2022 World Cup HIC 16:9
The forward flopped at Camp Nou before his career descended into farce in Madrid but he has re-emerged as his nation's most important player in Qatar

Antoine Griezmann is usually as blunt as he is honest.

When Atletico Madrid were knocked out of Europe last month, he admitted that Diego Simeone's side had got exactly what they deserved and argued that the only acceptable response to any failure is to "squeeze your a**, work hard, shut your mouth and fight."

It was interesting, then, that while speaking to the press on Friday, Griezmann was slightly irked by a question that was effectively a compliment.

Indeed, in making a seemingly innocuous enquiry about his fine form at Qatar 2022, a journalist praised the player for rediscovering himself after looking a little lost for a while.

Griezmann argued, "To say that I was lost is a bit mean and harsh."

In truth, though, to suggest otherwise would be ridiculous.

The Griezmann that played such an integral part in France's triumphant World Cup campaign in Russia four years ago essentially went missing between 2019 and 2022.

His move to Camp Nou was the catalyst for a catastrophic dip in form.

In an era of terrible transfers by Barcelona, Griezmann was the worst, the ultimate vanity signing by former president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who seemingly only prised the Frenchman away from Atletico to show that he could.

The Barca fans certainly didn't want the forward. Griezmann, remember, had turned down a move to Catalunya in the summer before in a horribly ill-advised, Gerard Pique-produced documentary.

Unsurprisingly, the supporters had neither forgotten nor forgiven such a humiliating public rejection.

Griezmann did his best to win them over. It's worth remembering that he did score 35 times across two full seasons at Camp Nou, but by last summer he was only too keen to return to Atletico, and Barca were happy to see the back of him.

The only issue was the fee, of course, with the Blaugrana understandably intent on limiting their loss on a €120 million signing.

What followed was farcical.

Atletico took Griezmann back on loan and extended that agreement for the 2022-23 season.

However, in a desperate bid to avoid triggering a €40m appearance-based clause in the deal, Simeone was told that he could only field the forward for 30 minutes at a time.

By that stage, Griezmann's mental health had become something of a cause for concern for Didier Deschamps.

After going six months without a goal for club and country, Griezmann was booed by France fans during a 1-1 draw with Croatia in June.

"His state of mind is not the best and he isn’t going to leave it all behind him with a click of the fingers," Deschamps acknowledged.

Griezmann's lack of game time at the start of the current campaign hardly helped matters.

When he linked up with France in September for the final two rounds of Nations League action, he had only played more than half an hour for Atleti on one occasion since the start of the season.

"At least he's not tired," Deschamps quipped. But the France coach was worried.

“It's not his best period," he added. "A part of it is physical, and a part of it mental.

"I'm not saying he's worn out. I know his qualities and his mind too. He does not baulk.

"It's just not his best period. But it does not mean that I question what he is capable of doing. I know very well what he can bring to the group."

Consequently, Deschamps decided to include Griezmann in his squad for Qatar, even though the attacker had gone a year without a goal for his country, and netted just six times for Atletico during the first half of the season.

That show of faith has been fully vindicated.

Griezmann's wait for a goal goes on but he has become the fulcrum of the France attack.

Kylian Mbappe is Les Blues' best player; but Griezmann is arguably their most influential.

Everything goes through him. He is playing neither as a No.10 nor a No.8, more a hybrid of the two, the ultimate link man between the midfield and the attack.

"I think this is the best spot for me because I can read the game from behind the scenes," he told reporters after starring in the 4-1 win over Australia.

Indeed, one really has to give Griezmann his due. As team-mate Jules Kounde pointed out, it takes a certain level of technique and intelligence to perform such a demanding and difficult role.

Humility is also key. It simply wouldn't have worked as well as it has if Griezmann had let his ego, or his desire to get back among the goals, get in the way.

"It's true that I've not scored yet but I don't mind," he insisted. "The team is what's important and the team needs me more in the heart of the game."

He's certainly been in the thick of the action to date. It was Griezmann who created Kylian Mbappe's winner against Denmark, and it was Griezmann who completely changed the complexion of the game when he came on against Tunisia.

In the latter, he was denied what would have been a deserved equaliser by VAR, and his disappointment was obvious.

However, neither Deschamps nor France fans will mind if Griezmann's drought continues in Qatar, as long as he continues performing as he has been to date.

“There are zero problems in my private life," he told reporters on Friday. "I had a tough time at Barcelona and the return to Atletico was complicated too. But I'm confident now."

The man himself may disagree that he ever got lost over the past few years but he's certainly got his self-belief back after finding himself in a fascinating new role for France.