After two years of expensive disappointment, Barcelona has finally moved on from Antoine Griezmann. The 30-year-old French forward is back at Atlético Madrid after leaving the club where he became a star in 2019, following the well-paved road from Catalonia to the Spanish capital on a one-year loan deal that reportedly has an obligation to buy him next summer for €40 million.
Griezmann leaves behind a Barcelona club in financial flux partly due to contracts like the one he received, yet his exit is a boon to the blaugrana both for what it does to relieve its dwindling coffers and for the team’s on-field prospects. Barcelona bet huge on Griezmann, and they lost.
The biggest reason why is now playing in Paris. Lionel Messi, for all his otherworldly talent, made building a coherent Barcelona attack difficult. After all, the club had to utilize players around him in a front three that would be comfortable doing all the dirty work that Messi was too old and too important to do, while not seeing much of the ball at their feet. Griezmann, to his credit, is a disciple of Diego Simeone, his past-and-present manager at Atlético, so the idea of hard-working clean-up was not foreign to him. However, while he did have to press and harry opponents in his first stint in Madrid, Griezmann was also used to the offense running through him.
At Barcelona, that was Messi’s role, and it turned Griezmann from a striker worth a lot of money into just another role player. In that regard, his €120 million move in 2019 was an abject disaster before he had even stepped on the field. Why buy someone with a particular set of skills for ungodly money if the team is not set up to let him express the very same talent that made him worth that amount in the first place? Instead, Griezmann had to try his hand at a variety of roles he was not well-suited for, and the results, captured both via the eye test and the statistics, surprised no one.
He was never going to work as a solo striker; he’s too small and too crafty to plop at the head of a front three. He’s also not a natural scorer, either; his skillset put him in positions to score at Atlético, but he was never a world-conquering goal machine (his highest goal tally in a league season in Madrid was 22, done in each of his first two years there). Instead, he played off a bigger striker—usually Diego Costa—which freed him up to find the gaps in defenses for low-difficulty shots. That opportunity didn’t really exist at Barcelona, which plays a 4-3-3 formation with religious fervor.
The wings weren’t much better for him. To put it frankly, Griezmann is not a good enough dribbler or a fast enough sprinter to work full-time on the outside. Though he appeared mentally checked out in his three appearances for Barcelona this season prior to his transfer, those games showed that he has lost a good handful of his quickness, leaving him to flounder on the wing when he received the ball in space.
He was especially disappointing compared to his attack partners, Martin Braithwaite and especially new signing Memphis Depay, both of whom seemed to embrace the lack of Messi’s ball dominance. With Griezmann gone, it will open up his spot for someone else to mesh better with those two, and Barcelona has options: Ansu Fati should be back from injury soon, new signing Sergio Agüero could slot into the striker spot, as could Sevilla loanee Luuk de Jong, who arrived on deadline day. Whatever manager Ronald Koeman goes with, it can’t be much worse than the man on his way back to Atlético.
Again, these are all problems that anyone could have predicted prior to Griezmann joining Barcelona. The only way this could have worked was with a total retooling of how Barcelona approaches soccer; back then, Luis Suárez was still at Barcelona—he is now Griezmann’s teammate once again in Madrid—and something like a 4-1-2-1-2 formation with the Uruguayan and Griezmann up top and Messi behind them could have played more to Griezmann’s strengths. That was never going to happen, though, because it would go against Barcelona’s culture and because it would minimize Messi’s contributions in the final actions before shots. Neither would have been acceptable.
Instead, it’s best to look at Griezmann as the third in a trio of costly excesses performed by Barcelona’s previous board, spearheaded by the maniacal whims of former president Josep Maria Bartomeu. Along with Ousmane Dembélé in 2017 and Philippe Coutinho in 2018, Griezmann formed a troika of incompetence, though he at least scored some goals compared to his fellow 100 million-plus teammates: 32 in 99 appearances across league, cup, and Champions League play.
His was the biggest disappointment of all, though. Dembélé has been waylaid by a body made of glass, so his true potential never really got a chance to shine through, while Coutinho was even less suited to Barcelona’s system, an attacking midfield-slash-playmaking-wing in a club that didn’t use the former and had Messi as the latter.
Griezmann, though, was a superstar, one of the best five players in La Liga at the time of his transfer. He was a crown jewel for Bartomeu and his band of lunatics at the wheel, and his fit did not matter in the slightest. It’s unfair, but Griezmann’s biggest contribution to Barcelona wasn’t anything he did on the field; instead, it was the moment when he signed his name on the dotted line of a contract that helped set off the chain of events that landed Messi in Paris. He alone can’t be blamed for Messi’s departure, but Griezmann served as a perfect example of the mishaps of recent Barcelona memory. He was a poor fit, cost way too much money, and has now left for a fraction of his original cost. It’s telling that no one is mourning his departure; he’ll best be remembered instead as the poster boy for the most poorly run era of a once-proud club.