Antoine Griezmann is one of the best players in the world, but you wouldn’t know it from his time at Barcelona.
Much like they did to Philippe Coutinho, Barcelona have bought a superstar and played him in an unfamiliar position because his main position does not exist in their system.
For Coutinho, it was the idea of playing him as a winger when he was best suited as an attacking midfielder. Barcelona were given more or less a blank check to sign the one player who could replace Andrés Iniesta, and they thought they had their man on the Liverpool star.
With time, though, the coaching staff felt he was not defensively strong enough to play as a central midfielder. They played him as a winger to relieve him of defensive duties, and while he was intermittently effective, he was far from impressive. He lacked the characteristics a winger would need to succeed in the Barcelona system.
Griezmann has been fielded in the same position - left wing. While he did play in that role earlier in his career, he achieved his fame as a second striker with Atlético Madrid, and felt uncomfortable leading the line when asked to do so by Diego Simeone. Similar to Coutinho, Griezmann’s best attributes don’t seem to be used as a winger. For example, he is very fast for a second striker, but relatively slow for an elite winger.
Luis Suárez is still coming off a very long injury layoff, and it shows. He’s slowly building up fitness with each game, but at the moment seems very rusty and slow. It’s a shame as he was in a rich vein of form previous to that - he had 17 goals and assists in eleven games, even though he did not complete ‘90 in two of them, to the point you could practically call it a bit over ten games.
The complaints and growing frustrations over the Uruguayan were present even when he was scoring regularly, but at the moment it’s hard not to imagine how much it would help to have even an inconsistent version of Suárez so long as he was still buying the team goals. Barcelona have one goal in their last two matches, and a scrappy one at that.
Suárez is at an age where you can’t say for sure if he’ll ever be that good again, especially after a serious injury. But you might expect he would improve as he builds rhythm.
For the moment though, Quique Setién might want to play Griezmann in the #9 role more often. Again, that position doesn’t suit him either. And he’s looked equally if not more uncomfortable in that role. But he does offer more pace and energy than Suárez, again, particularly now.
One reason to move Griezmann into the striking role is to give Ansu Fati more chances. The youngster is a breath of fresh air every time he plays, as he seems more suited to being a winger. At times he looked a bit Neymar-esque against Athletic Bilbao, in his ability to cut in from the left.
Ousmane Dembélé is still injured, which is a shame as he is, in fact, a true winger. However, he won’t be ready until later in the summer, and he won’t be 100% right away, either. It’s questionable how much you can expect him to contribute at this stage for this season.
There’s also Martin Braithwaite. While he has gobs of pace, he isn’t suited to play the left-wing role, at the very least not yet. Playing as a winger, he was asked to help in the build-up and defend much more than he’s used to. He didn’t look his best against Sevilla. His position right now is to challenge Suárez for the striking spot. For that reason, Setién may feel he can’t afford to play Griezmann as a #9 too much as he only has Fati otherwise to play on the left.
There may be concern of overburdening Fati at a young age, especially as the matches are coming in thick and fast. But Barcelona realistically need their prodigy if they want to win either La Liga or the UEFA Champions League this season.
One possible alternative is to give time to some B team players. Unfortunately, Carles Pérez and Abel Ruiz were sold in the winter transfer window, while Hiroki Abe is out with a long term injury. The forward Barcelona are interested in bringing up from the B team these days isn’t always a forward, but often a midfielder - Álex Collado. Still, it might be a good idea to give him some time.
The other option is to try to get creative with playing people out of position, but that should probably be a last resort. Arturo Vidal logged some time recently as a winger. Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba can do it, too.
In the end, it’s up to Setién to figure out the Griezmann puzzle. He had nothing to do with the recruitment, but it’s still his problem to solve.