Thursday, December 22, 2022

Kylian Mbappé scores France’s goals, but he’s not their best striker at this World Cup

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Why is Antoine Griezmann so easily overlooked?

France 2-1 Denmark (Mbappe 61′, 86′ | Christensen 68′)

STADIUM 974 – You don’t have to look far to see this French attack’s strongest threats. Kylian Mbappe has scored in both opening wins and wasn’t even their best lightning winger. If you’re looking for the latent threat, who better than a forward who’s been called underrated so many times over the last decade that he has to wonder if that only counts as ‘rated’?

Mbappe, Dembélé, Giroud; it’s a heady mix of contrasts. It would be with some trepidation, then, that every other French attacker is the most intriguing player in Didier Deschamps’ side. The coach himself may have a different opinion. In the middle of Euro 2020, Deschamps spoke at length about the player he believed to be France’s most consistent player: “He’s one of the greatest players of all time, both in Europe and globally.”

Fancy a guess? No, not Mbappe, although he is prince regent until the World Cup victory. Not N’Golo Kante or Paul Pogba, who will be missed in Qatar if not yet. Not Raphael Varane, the French’s comfortingly expensive saloon car, which has been defending itself for a decade. Not Karim Benzema, the reigning Ballon D’Or winner.

why is is it so easy to overlook Antoine Griezmann? By the end of this tournament he should be France’s fifth top scorer and at 31 he is already France’s third top scorer. He was France’s top scorer at the last World Cup and the Top scorer at Euro 2016 and scoring goals isn’t even what he’s best known for.

Maybe it’s a tactical thing – Griezmann has always been a bit positionless (although that’s actually a euphemism for his multi-functionality). Perhaps it’s also a question of personality: he seems slightly grumpy, but there is no contract that top footballers should sign that obliges them to laugh and grin when they celebrate a goal. Griezmann also lacks some PR super spin that his surroundings in Spain and France certainly bothered us with. He was kind of always there, to the point where he won’t be anymore.

It’s been a strange few months for Griezmann, the unknowing and unwilling pawn in a political game between two of Spain’s biggest clubs. A two-year loan deal saw Atletico Madrid paying £35million to make the move permanent if Griezmann played more than 45 minutes in more than 50 per cent of games. Cue a farce at the start of the season where Griezmann became the 30-minute man and nothing more. He deserves better. Fortunately a solution was found.

If Kante and Pogba were both fit, who knows where or if Griezmann would have started in this team. Perhaps on the right, a selection tinged with disappointment because it would come at Dembele’s expense. Perhaps in the hole behind Benzema, where he makes those late runs into the box and beyond the striker, which he’s made his specialty. But then the midfield would be a man light.

Without this pair, Griezmann became an auxiliary fielder in a role that can best be described as “freedom with caveats”. With the protection of Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot at his back, Griezmann packs his compass, map and supplies and sets out in search of mischief and joy. It is an experience to be there live.

There’s Griezmann, kind of the deepest French player on counterattack for collecting the ball so close to his own goal. There he is again, bursting past the last man but shooting over. Now he intercepts passes and presses. Oh look, he popped up on the right this time and crossed over to the winning goal. It’s a weird thing where at the same time it never seems like he’s going to sprint and yet he’s always where you want him to be. Sometimes he tackles, sometimes he creates; every day he is hectic.

Thomas Müller was coined as a “space finder”, but Griezmann is actually the opposite in this role. He’s not looking for space where the ball could be next, instead trying to move toward the ball. He’s there to create overlap and overload wherever he lays his hat down for a moment. It goes without saying: it’s damn hard to quit. If someone doesn’t find a way, France will win this thing.

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