DOHA, Qatar — You might find it quite hard to follow Antoine Griezmann at the moment. The France international is a “No. 9.5” who wears the No. 7 jersey, but is playing as a No. 8 at the World Cup. Still with us?
The 2018 World Cup winner started his career as a wide attacking player for Real Sociedad, hence he favours the No. 7 on his back. He made his name as a second striker for Les Bleus and Atletico Madrid, hence the playing as a “No. 9.5” — something of a hybrid between a centre-forward and a playmaker just behind the striker. Now France manager Didier Deschamps is reinventing Griezmann for the national team as a truer midfielder — a No. 8.
It is a credit to Griezmann that he has been able to make this new position his own and to shine like he has so far in this World Cup. Deschamps also deserves credit for dreaming up the idea, meticulously planning for it and helping make it a success.
“You know, you would make a great holding midfielder,” Deschamps told Griezmann, one of his favourite players in his squad, at breakfast roughly two years ago. “I think you have everything to be a great No. 6.”
They both laughed it off, but the idea never left the manager’s mind. We don’t know, and might never know, if Deschamps was right and Griezmann could do a great controlling the midfield as a No. 6, but the idea evolved into playing him as a more dynamic No. 8 when a wave of injuries hit the national team before the 2022 World Cup. Without Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Corentin Tolisso, Deschamps grew convinced that Griezmann could be the solution.
“He has everything to play deeper: the vision, the work rate, the touch, the energy, the intelligence,” explained Deschamps. For him, it was a no-brainer.
The idea, as a source put it to ESPN, was to get Griezmann to mimic the evolution of Bernardo Silva under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. The Portugal international, 28, is younger than the 31-year-old Frenchman, but they have some similar qualities. Bernardo plays at times as a No. 6 or a No. 8 alongside Rodri for City, and has proven to be excellent in the midfield, so why couldn’t Griezmann perform in a similar role?
The Atletico star was up for it straight away. He could have refused or pouted about being pushed further from goal — especially after scoring four goals as France won the World Cup four years ago — but he needed no convincing. Maybe, deep down, he knew he was more than capable of playing in the middle.
“I am quite free in this new role. I must be the link between the defence and the forwards. I have three players in front of me, so more options, so it is easier for me,” Griezmann told reporters last week. “The head coach likes to discuss with the players, know how you are feeling, and then he will find the best balance for the team. We are finding it.
“I feel great physically, which is helping me in this new position. I know the team needs me in a deeper, more central position. I think I have had good performances so far so I am very happy.”
The key to the success of this new Griezmann is his relationship with Deschamps. He said of his manager: “I owe him everything in the national team. I give everything for France, for the shirt but also for him. And I am trying to do everything I can so he keeps trusting me. Every move, every game is like a ‘thank you’ that I am sending him. I want him to be proud of me.”
Their relationship is indeed very special. Deschamps has now played Griezmann in each of France’s past 71 games. It is an incredible record; the previous mark, held by Patrick Vieira, was 44 consecutive matches.
With his new position, Griezmann’s influence within the team has also grown. He was always one of the leaders, but now playing in the heart of the team means that he is even more important both on and off the field. On it, every passage of play goes through him (and very often ends with Kylian Mbappe). Off it, he is the DJ of the squad, he is the joker, always smiling, always in a good mood, always talking and always encouraging.
Clearly, Deschamps thinks he is indispensable. Griezmann has made himself so, even if at times his performances with France suffered from his poor form at club level during his terrible two years playing for Barcelona. Now, back at Atletico, he is happy again. He is enjoying his football again, especially in this new position. Griezmann was up for the challenge, and he has risen to it.