‘Wonderkid Watch’ continues its quest to find the best young talent. Up next in the La Liga edition is a young Frenchman…
Name & Age: Antoine Griezmann, 21
Club & Position: Real Sociedad, Winger
There’s an old saying, “big things come in small packages.” Although not yet widely known, Antoine Griezmann joins a number of pint-sized players who continue to provide living proof of this statement. However, had it not been for incredible persistence, this particular ‘small package’ could so easily have been lost amongst the pile.
Before earning his genuine chance at La Real, Griezmann completed trial after trial at varying clubs back home in France, but was forced to endure the pain of constant rejection due to his lightweight frame. Only after impressing in a youth academy friendly match versus Paris Saint Germain did he finally get his big break.
Real Sociedad offered him an initial one-week trial, which he readily accepted. Because he impressed during that week, he was offered the chance to stay on for a further week. Now convinced by the player, the club offered Griezmann a youth contract and after persuading his parents, he was off to Spain.
Griezmann would spend 4 years in the club’s youth system before finally getting his chance with the first-team in 2009 at 18 years of age; he grabbed that chance with both hands.
In Spain’s second tier of football, Griezmann would have a very encouraging debut season in which he scored 6 goals, helping Real Sociedad to not only gain promotion to the top flight, but as league winners.
Unsurprisingly, Real Sociedad were desperate to keep hold of their prodigy and showed that by offering Griezmann a long-term deal, which he accepted despite interest from a plethora of top European clubs. Since then, Griezmann hasn’t looked back. Indeed, playing in the Spanish top flight hasn’t proven to be a bridge too far for the young Frenchman. A further 11 goals and 4 assists over the past 2 years is proof of that. But what is all the excitement about?
— Crossing — The hallmark of any top class winger is his crossing ability from the flanks and Antoine Griezmann has proven himself in this regard. His crossing accuracy stands at just over 28%, which is quite good.*
— Taking Set-Pieces — Set pieces should never be taken for granted. In an otherwise tight game, a decent set-piece delivery can exploit faulty positioning and a lack of concentration at the back, resulting in a smash-and-grab victory.
Griezmann, over the last 2 seasons, has completed an average of 1.3 key passes per game. In addition to his respectable crossing accuracy, the high quality of his deliveries at set pieces contributes to this stat.
— Team Work & Work Rate — These are qualities that simply cannot be coached. Consider it a bonus, one that managers and fans never cease to appreciate.
Antoine Griezmann works hard not only going forward, but in the defensive phase of play as well. Over the last 2 seasons, he has averaged 2.1 tackles, 2.5 interceptions, and .2 clearances per game — evidence that Griezmann is indeed a special, valuable, and even self-less player. Perhaps it is his struggle to earn a chance back then that motivates him to work hard when given chances now.
— Passing???– As is the case with pretty much every player, there is at least one weakness to point out. Griezmann’s passing hasn’t been the best; he has averaged a completion percentage of just 70. As far as long passing is concerned alone, he has averaged a deplorable completion percentage of 48.2. However, as helpful as stats are, they can sometimes be misleading. At times, there is some reading to be done in-between the lines (or stats). This is one such time.
Griezmann’s low passing completion percentages indicate poor technique and even limited vision at the outset. However, that is not the case in actuality. The problem here lies with the club’s playing style. La Real employ a very direct style, focused largely on wing play — Sociedad play the fourth-highest amount of crosses per game (23) in La Liga.
This predominant feature of Sociedad’s game surely gets the best out of Griezmann, even though the club directs a staggering 44% of its attacks down the right flank where Xabi Prieto regularly patrols. That 44% is the highest percentage of right wing attacks in the league. On the other hand, Griezmann’s left wing is employed for just 31% of the club’s attacks — the lowest in the league for that flank. That Griezmann managed to establish himself as a talented winger under such circumstances speaks volumes about his pedigree.
Sociedad’s emphasis on wing play is also evidenced by the fact that just 25% of their attacks come through the middle of the pitch — third lowest in La Liga. Basically, Sociedad’s defenders and central midfielders spray the ball out wide and the wingers — Griezmann and Xabi Prieto — have to rely on individual talent to get past their man and supply either the cross into the box or the through ball in between the opposition’s defenders.
The vast majority of their passes are long and long passes incur a higher risk of possession turnover than short passes. From a team perspective, this explains why Sociedad average just 45% possession per game and why they complete just 75% of their passes. As far as Griezmann is concerned, this explains why his average pass completion percentage over the last couple seasons is so low and also why he has turned the ball over an average of 1.2 times per game.
He has also been dispossessed an average of 1.3 times per game over the same period. This is because he is caught in possession while looking for an unmarked, forward-placed option. So it’s the tactics of manager Philippe Montanier to blame rather than Griezmann. There is no obvious problem with his technique or vision.
Griezmann has established himself as a natural left winger. However, he impressed when he twice featured on the right hand side of attacking midfield. His impressive work rate and desire to help out his team-mates combined with his excellent wing play and two-footed ability explain perfectly why he is capable of having a great impact on either flank.
His defensive attributes also see him capable of putting in a good shift at left back. These attributes together with his great crossing ability and dribbling technique (he averages 1 dribble per game) would make him a great outlet on the overlap.
Shifting left wingers to left back isn’t a move that is unheard of. In fact, right there in La Liga, there is a known success story concerning this. Fábio Coentrão started his career as a left winger at Rio Ave, but rose to prominence with Benfica and his national side, Portugal, featuring as a left back. He earned his big-money move to Real Madrid because of his impressive displays there. Like Coentrão, Griezmann certainly has the quality and mentality to adapt to that positional change.
Natural: LW, RW, LAM, RAM
Estimated Transfer Value
Many prestigious European clubs have developed a keen interest in Antoine Griezmann, but he is fiercely — and admirably — loyal to the club that gave him a chance when no one else would. La Real rate him highly and would place a lofty price tag on his head. Inflation aside, a fee of around £8 million sounds about right. However, a fee of around £15 million sounds more realistic in today’s market.
Although not as established yet, Antoine Griezmann joins the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi, Luka Modric, Mathieu Valbuena, etc. in proving that size is becoming less and less of a deterrent in football.
He is at a club that affords him the opportunity to play regular first-team football. This is crucial to his development, especially at his age.
Despite his claims to the contrary, it is indeed only a matter of time before he leaves Real Sociedad and joins a top club. And having represented France up to U21 level, as long as he continues to impress, it would only be a matter of time before he debuts for France’s senior team too. Then, the entire world would see his original celebrations when he scores.
*- Stats courtesy of whoscored