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Barcelona adapts new tactics as Antoine Griezmann shines playing four positions

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Quique Setién gave Griezmann more freedom than ever

Villarreal CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Last week, I asked Quique Setién to be bolder and more imaginative, to involve Antoine Griezmann more, and to get the most out of Luis Suárez by asking him to play better minutes, not more minutes. To his credit, the manager did all three with style in a 4-1 win over Villarreal.

We shall see whether that formula continues to work, but it definitely did this time.

Griezmann seemed more plugged in than ever, not too long after he was used only for stoppage time in a 2-2 draw against Atlético Madrid. Rumors swirled that Griezmann was incredibly unhappy with the manager - and it’s not hard to imagine why. To have a superstar FIFA World Cup winner, only to use him for a few minutes in a must-win game, comes across as quite an insult.

Setién seems to have relented and told Griezmann he’s allowed to follow his instincts. Generally, to this point, Griezmann has been used as a left-winger / left-midfielder hybrid. He was told to play on the left in attack, and without the ball, go back into the left side of midfield in a bank of four, letting the two other forwards hang around waiting for service.

The left wing is simply not Griezmann’s best position. Sure, he was used there in his early days, but it’s not how he became a top, top player. He has great work rate, and does a good job as an auxiliary midfielder... but that’s not all you hope to get out of someone with that pedigree.

In pre-match formation graphics against Villarreal. Griezmann was shown as a right-sided forward, with Suárez on the left and Messi behind them in a #10 role. However, post-match average position graphics told a different story. That showed him behind rather than in front of Messi, and basically in line with, rather than to the right of, Suárez. In fact, neither one comes close to accurately capturing the extent of what he was doing.

If you want to capture graphically what his position was, the best bet is a heat map. There is some limitation to this, as heat maps only show where a player performed an “action” such as making a pass or tackle, but not, for example, if you were stationed as part of a four-man line in but simply covered your man, rather than actively making a tackle.

Still, the heat map differences in his last two appearances is telling.

To simplify, Griezmann played, broadly speaking, in four positions.

First was as a right-forward. This is how the TV graphic put it, and where he started out. Messi was playing behind him (and not as a right-wing) and Suárez was basically playing the same role as the Frenchman, but on the left. As a right-forward, Griezmann was seen, for example, making a decoy run for Suárez when the Uruguayan scored his goal.

The second position was left-forward. This is basically the inverse of the first position, with Suárez on the right instead of him. This is how, for example, Griezmann scored his goal. Suárez was on the right and made the pass towards Griezmann on the left, who laid it off to Messi, who returned it to him with a neat backheel flick. Griezmann’s position when he shot - a beautiful chipped attempt - was very similar to Suárez’s position when he scored.

Third, was as a central attacking midfielder. Basically, among the two other positions and this one, the forwards were allowed to switch off as they saw fit. Griezmann, however, was different in that he was given a little more defensive responsibility. So when he played in midfield, he would drop back to defend, ahead of a band of three other midfielders. Messi, on the other hand, was not as likely to drop back into defense in that role. After half-time, Griezmann seemed to be in this spot more, playing this position in a way that reminded me of Riqui Puig’s showing against Atlético Madrid, the first time the boss tried the 4-3-1-2 formation. I’m not sure if the coach wanted Griezmann behind the strikers more, or the forwards just decided to do this more after half-time, but the result is the same. Interestingly, when Puig came on, it was for Suárez. Puig took up his usual spot at the tip of the diamond in midfield, moving Griezmann to the right-forward role permanently.

The fourth was right-midfield. After scoring his goal, Griezmann got into the midfield line to defend Villarreal’s kickoff. This was basically a 4-4-2. One thing I look at when trying to understand what the coach asked for is the player’s position from kickoff. During the game, a lot of things can happen, and, by necessity, you may need to shift around. But during a kickoff, it makes sense for a player to return “home.” It was interesting that this right-midfield spot was “home” when his team did not have the ball, at least towards the end of the first half.

If you wanted to, you could say he played other positions, but basically it amounted to: help the defense when you think you need to. It makes sense that if Griezmann is allowed to play both right-forward and left-forward, that he cannot be asked to play right-midfield only. When Barcelona lost the ball, he would race back and defend the spot that was easiest to get to. If he was on the left, that would be the left flank. If he was central, he’d beef up the numbers in the middle. Basically, it was once again a case of the boss giving him more trust in letting him go where he thinks he will be most useful.

Griezmann went off in the 72nd, and I imagine purely because he was all over the pitch and his energy levels were dropping. Interestingly, the manager went for Ansu Fati for Griezmann, but also Martin Braithwaite for Sergio Busquets. Setién then played with Fati and Braithwaite racing back and forth to help defend the flanks, leaving Messi in attack at all times. The result was more men committed to coming back, and Messi playing more or less like a false nine of old. This didn’t last too long, but the pair did press on well on both ends of the pitch. Fati got a goal, and Braithwaite nearly got two, but ultimately got none.

Suárez was the first sub out, by the way, which seems extremely telling. The manager admitted that the Uruguayan was not ready to play 90 minutes at 100% at the last post match-presser, despite him playing 90 minutes time and time again since the coronavirus restart. Perhaps he has convinced the Uruguayan that it it is in his best interest to play less minutes, but go all out, rather than to try to save himself for 90 every time.

The first challenge to this formation will be a team that has a bit more possession and creates more chances. Will it hold up defensively? The second challenge will be, will the team be able to get enough width against teams that clog the middle? It’ll depend on the fullbacks and the front three’s creativity. For the moment there’s a glimmer of hope, albeit with some strong caveats, that we are getting a new, better version of Barcelona under Setién.