“The human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” ~ Dead Poets Society.
Can there be beauty in functionality? In regards to beauty, people won’t talk about things they think only function. Things like maths, science and all its derivatives. However, there are things in those disciplines that if they knew, make up what they could see as beautiful.
Sierpinski’s Triangle and Koch’s Snowflake are beautiful patterns that occur through laws governed by maths. A function that can make something so beautiful. But not everything functions in a superficial way. There is a tangibility to those patterns. There are some things that function and they do so with intangibilities.
Then there’s the wonderful thing about Antoine Griezmann. He manages to straddle the line of all the aforementioned: the functionality; its beauty; the tangible functions and its intangible ones. A man born in east-central France, with ancestry from Germany and Portugal, who moved his family to the Basque country to follow his footballing dream. A region that straddles the border of France and Spain.
18 years later, he is the most recent recipient of LaLiga Santander’s Player of the Month award. Betwixt his trials in San Sebastian for Real Sociedad and this award, a lot has occurred in the career of the Atletico Madrid and Les Bleus legend. In order to talk about his brilliance though, we initially focus on the period in time, one that has just passed, where there was little to be seen in the beauty of Griezmann.
In mathematics, there is something called strange attractors. An attractor (region or shape created through a point pulled through a mathematical function) that is sensitive-dependent on the exact conditions inputted. One change in the equation changes what could be a beautiful pattern into something that just looks like a random assembly of points.
The academy graduate of San Sebastian had been linked with a move to plenty of top clubs prior to Barcelona paying the release clause, with the assistance of a bank loan, to get the Frenchman at their club. Some €120m for the matter.
Plenty of people wondered exactly why the services of Griezmann were brought to the Camp Nou but nonetheless, it was a quality addition to the forward line. A line that was already stacked with quality but not humming from the same hymn sheet. If there was a conduit that has shown himself to knit together an attack, then in that sense you could see some reasoning behind it.
There is a way of playing that has become familiar to those that root in the stands of the Camp Nou. One of the hallmarks that is supposed to make Mes Que Un Club ring true. Not just from managers but from their players, especially the attackers. The individuality that can bring those off of their seats. To entertain. The bowl shape of the stadium elicits images of what spectators in the Colosseum would have looked like and La Blagurana call for that.
Barcelona had played through Lionel Messi for years prior. The obvious genius he possessed perhaps made their crowd spoilt to the other things that can be done in attack. The little man from Rosario was the one that was knitting the attack but his influence to be the finishing act as well grew. Beforehand, he was more one than the other, combining both so splendidly. Now with the decline of Luis Suarez and leaving of Neymar, Messi had become to the go-to man for both, a lot for even him.
Griezmann’s entrance was supposed to decrease the reliance on the Argentine in either of the two regards but the type of player he is, the way football is and expected to be played in Catalonia contravened. Under Ernesto Valverde, the positions that Griezmann split his playing time between was between the left wing and up top. In his time centrally, he would play in a two. Again though, he would mostly do so with Messi and it meant he had little of the previous freedom to roam to create and make things happen.
It can be seen in the fact that the amount of progressive passes he received is the highest in his two seasons at Barcelona than between 2017-2019 and 2021 to now. He was waiting to be fed rather than and not working off the movements of his teammates to find those spaces that he truly treasured. Even from his days at Real Sociedad, Griezmann was not the one to pick up the ball and dribble past players with a mazy run.
Whilst technically assured, he was not the technical ambrosia when compared to the likes of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Diego Maradona etc. The ingenuity to see a pass that little would see and even smaller could execute wasn’t a facet of his game that primarily reared its head. He was not your archetypal highlight reel player.
Polarising to an ultracrepidate, one who judges beyond his knowledge, Griezmann is someone whose appreciation comes more from those with more knowledge than most i.e. his teammates and former players. That is the wonder in Griezmann. In the same way that a car engineer would be captivated by the optimum fuel consumption of another car manufacturer, something that plenty of the public just wouldn’t have the knowledge to care about.
When Griezmann first put himself on the map, it would be his fifth season playing men’s football. His first in the second division for Real Sociedad B and the next four for the first team at the San Sebastian. Between the age of 19 and 23 years old, he was able to put good numbers on the board.
In just over 11,000 minutes in the league, he was able to get 40 goals and added 11 assists on top of that. 32 of those goal contributions came when Erreala elevated themselves from lower mid-table to qualifying for the Champions League and in the Frenchman’s last season, Europa League.
In recent years, the inverted winger had become popular but Griezmann was able to put the ball into the back of the net because of his superior intelligence as he played on the side of his preferred foot. Back then though, Griezmann was still a complete winger. Whilst he didn’t do so with panache, he was able to get past his marker with relative ease. He was capable of crossing into the frontman, Imanol Agirretxe and Haris Seferovic in the 2013/14 season, if called upon.
He was not just all about being fed but it was the fact that his numbers kept growing and growing that it attracted suitors domestically and abroad. In the end, Atletico were the most enamoured and ingeniously got him to replace the loss of Diego Costa. He was moved central, adapting his game to give him those same advantages in the crowded area of the pitch.
His appreciation of space, in both picking up the ball and running off into the space behind the backline, caused the opponents incredible problems. With his capabilities of ball manipulation, it made him a terrifying proponent. He was ice-cold in front of goal. He was underrated when the ball came in from crosses as he was able to get his head onto plenty.
Even as the player ahead of him changed, Atletico finding it difficult to get the 9s they had in Radamel Falcao, Fernando Torres, Diego Forlan etc, he showed that even with Diego Simeone’s style of play, it did not hurt his ability to put the ball into the back of the net. King of the Vicente Calderon and Metropolitano Stadium.
At the international level, he found his mojo when Didier Deschamps moulded the team in the image that helped amplify his qualities. This can be seen no more than the Euro 2016 campaign. Initially, the French team went with a 4-3-3 but in the first 315 minutes, it did not run smoothly. Outside of Dimitri Payet, no one else looked like they were playing to their optimum.
Griezmann especially had not impressed. He had played on the right, something he had hardly done at club level, not only in this tournament but in the friendlies leading up to the tournament seeing as France were hosting. So when they found themselves 1-0 against the Republic of Ireland, Didier Deschamps changed to a 4-2-3-1, stroke 4-4-2. It meant Griezmann would play in a role akin to his club side.
Since that moment, France have been to two World Cup finals, winning one and losing one. Also, they got to that Euros final, in which they lost to an extra-time winner from Eder of Portugal. The last one, however, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, truly showed the absolute quality that has endeared Griezmann to his managers.
Whereas Griezmann very much played in between the midfield and defensive line before, in this tournament, he played more like an advanced central midfielder. Akin to the positions you would often see the little magicians of Andres Iniesta & David Silva, the completion of his midfield work for someone who has not played there often was genuine brilliance.
With France in possession, he was able to provide a different option to progress the ball up the pitch as he drifted into that right half space to connect with the Ousmane Dembele as France played with Jules Kounde, who wouldn’t venture far up the pitch. He would also do the progression himself as France were without Paul Pogba and played with a very much workmen-like midfield of Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot.
Off the ball, he was selfless. He covered the gaps, ran the miles and made the tackles, interceptions & duels that those aforementioned little magicians would not be tasked or capable of doing. A man that was an attacker for much of his career to play as he did in the middle of the park to such a high level showed how much prowess he possess within his brain and feet.
And that is what is so special about Antoine Griezmann. Last month, he was blessed with the Player of the Month award, as his three games in the month of March yielded 2 goals and 1 assist as Los Colchoneros won each of those. This is in the same season where Atletico could not afford to play him too much initially in fear of triggering a transfer from Barcelona at an amount they could not afford, he has established himself once again as the primary conduit for Atletico Madrid.
You look at Diego Simeone and Didier Deschamps and their football can leave a lot to be desired in terms of their style but it would be disrespectful to say Griezmann is a microcosmic representation of that defensive style of play. In fact, alike the fractals of Sierpinski’s Triangle and The Koch’s Snowflake, Griezmann is the one to bring it to life.
He isn’t the stardust in a team that works in spite of his lack of defensive work because he digs in himself. He is the equation that if you plot the points enough times will get you the beautiful picture, even if it is a repetitive one like Sierpinski Triangle.
The critics of Simeone and Deschamps particularly talk about the dampening effect they have on the attackers they have had over the years. If not the fact that some have failed, others have looked at those who have succeeded and argue success could have been had under more progressive managers in more progressive teams.
We saw what happened with Griezmann at Barcelona. Alike the strange attractors, one condition being off, like the expectation to be the eclectic artist or not putting him in the correct position, it will lead to him looking like a random assortment of dots on a graph. Griezmann is not as volatile as that and he has shown his adaptability but if you give him everything you want, his noble pursuit in his application of the game of football will be beautiful enough to make you stay alive for.
So can functionality be beautiful? Of course it can. In the game that they beat England at the World Cup just gone, Antonie Griezmann put on a virtuoso display in every aspect of central midfield play, having carved out a career as a winger, second striker, attacking midfielder and striker. That’s functionality and it’s beautiful. Just not in the way that you would usually expect.
By: Elijah Sofoluke / @AliquamScripto
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Flor Tan Jun / Getty Images