“Haaland or Messi for the Ballon d’Or? Me. I should win it. You forgot that I am nominated too…“
It was a comment that may have been made in jest prior to last month’s Ballon d’Or ceremony, but Antoine Griezmann had every right to throw his hat in the ring for the award. The Atlético Madrid forward is in the form of his life and is arguably La Liga’s best player at the moment. No small feat in a league featuring the immense talent of Jude Bellingham.
Griezmann is enjoying his joint-most prolific start to a league campaign, scoring nine goals in his opening 13 appearances (also doing so in 2013-14 at Real Sociedad). More pertinently, the Frenchman has been directly involved in 31 La Liga goals across 2023 – the outright most of any player in the competition.
His 21st ranking in this year’s Ballon d’Or appears more questionable by the minute.
Griezmann’s redemption arc at the Metropolitano has been nothing short of extraordinary. Once adored by the Atléti faithful, the Frenchman departed for Barcelona in the summer of 2019 for a reported eye-watering €120 million. Yet it was a move that ultimately flattered to deceive, with the forward labelled as one of former Barça president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s biggest transfer flops at the Camp Nou.
Griezmann returned on loan to Atlético in 2021 with his tail between his legs, and the move was filled with unease. The fans struggled to warm to the attacker after his perceived betrayal, and he was unable to rediscover the form he had previously displayed in the Spanish capital. In a season rocked with injury setbacks, Griezmann netted just three league goals in 2021-22 – his worst-ever goalscoring return across a top-flight campaign.
Last season also began with unrest for the 32-year-old, who was only introduced after the 60th-minute mark in games as Atlético attempted to reduce the purchase clause fee in the loan deal with Barcelona. The two sides eventually reached a compromise and Griezmann’s move to the Metropolitano was made permanent last October. Yet Atlético’s season appeared to be over before it had even really started.
Los Cochoneros trailed league leaders Barcelona by 13 points at the time of the World Cup break and crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage for the first time in five years. Griezmann meanwhile, scored in just four of his first 17 La Liga appearances of last season.
But remarkably, Atlético have turned it around in 2023. No side has won more points in La Liga than Diego Simeone’s charges in this calendar year (81, alongside Barcelona), while Atlético also boast a game in hand on the Catalans.
Their reversal in form has undoubtedly been spearheaded by Griezmann. Only Nahuel Molina (2,871) played more league minutes than the Frenchman last season (2,859), even despite the 30-minute cameos that the forward was limited to at the start of the season. Griezmann is typically deployed as the more withdrawn of the two strikers in Simeone’s 3-5-2 system, acting as the link between the thirds, though that is not to say the forward’s influence in front of goal has waned. Griezmann was the only player to both score (15) and assist (16) over 10 goals in La Liga last season.
The 32-year-old attempted more shots than any other Atlético player last season (111), with his perfectly timed runs into the box posing a constant headache for opposition defenders. After dropping deep to get involved in the build-up play, Griezmann blindsides defenders, with his late runs often going unmarked. He has the highest expected goals (xG) tally of any La Liga player in all competitions this season (nine). The Frenchman has proven to be extremely efficient in front of goal, netting more big chances than any of his teammates this term (six), while also having the highest shot conversion rate for Atlético across all competitions (30.2%).
Griezmann influences almost everything that Atléti do in the final third. He has been involved in 227 shot-ending sequences and 39 goal-ending sequences in La Liga in 2023 – both division-highs. His role allows him to drift into the half-spaces, presenting defenders with the conundrum of permitting him to go unmarked or following him into midfield and leaving huge gaps in the backline.
Griezmann relishes dropping deep to collect the ball and always looks to provide a forward option. He has received 71 progressive passes in La Liga this term – the most of any Atlético player. He then seeks to turn and advance the ball as quickly as possible by combining with teammates from between the opposition lines. The 32-year-old is equally capable of carrying the ball upfield on his own – only Pablo Barrios (21) has completed more dribbles for Atlético than him this season (14).
Griezmann acts as the creative hub in Los Colchoneros’ side and constantly scans to assess his surroundings. He recorded 16 assists in La Liga last season – the most of any player in the Spanish top flight. Four of those were for strike partner Álvaro Morata, which was the joint-most assists from one player to another in La Liga (alongside Rodrygo to Karim Benzema, also four). The 32-year-old also created more chances than any other player last term (81), with his penetrative passes cutting right through the heart of opposition defences.
Atlético have typically struggled to break down opponents operating with a low block. Yet Griezmann’s close control around the 18-yard box has enabled Simeone’s side to fashion chances out of nothing. The forward has had 11 shots from one-twos in La Liga across the calendar year, which is the most of any player in the competition. He floats to the edge of box, seeking to inject some much-needed spark to Atléti’s attack, and has made 65 passes into the box this season – the outright most of any of his teammates. Operating as a second striker, he has completed more passes ending in the final third than any other Atlético player this season (138).
Griezmann acts as a playmaker in Simeone’s side, with his tally of 9.39 expected assists (xA) in 2023 a division-high, proving just how important he is to La Liga’s best attack. Atlético have scored more goals than any other side in La Liga this calendar year (77). The attacker’s roaming runs are a constant thorn in the opposition’s side as he looks to play quick interchanges with his teammates to work an opening.
He has made 62 successful lay-offs in La Liga across 2023 – more than any other player in the competition. Griezmann is afforded the freedom to dictate games, and Atlético are reaping the rewards. Only Bellingham (18) has been directly involved in more goals than Griezmann among La Liga players across all competitions this season (14).
The 2018 World Cup winner does not shy away from doing the dirty work either. Griezmann’s tireless work rate encapsulates the passion of his manager on the sidelines as he relentlessly attempts to regain the ball. Atlético have scored more goals from high turnovers than any other side in La Liga this term (four). The 32-year-old has also been used in the midfield three on occasion this season – showcasing just how influential he can be.
The forward is involved in almost every phase of play for Simeone’s side and has created the most secondary chances in La Liga in 2023 (43) – the pass before the pass that creates the chance. He is always looking to pull the strings for Los Colchoneros, deviating into the channels to exploit pockets of space and kickstart attacks. In fact, he has been involved in the most goal-ending open-play sequences (16) and the sequences with the highest xG (13.27) in the league this season.
Griezmann also has a huge landmark in sight. He has scored 170 goals in all competitions for Atlético Madrid and is just three behind the club’s all-time record scorer, Luis Aragonés (reached 173 goals in 1974). It is a milestone that Griezmann will undoubtedly eclipse, but the attacker will more importantly be fixated on winning his first La Liga title with Atléti this season.
If he can do that – in a season featuring a European Championships – you can guarantee that Antoine Griezmann will be significantly higher than 21st in the Ballon d’Or rankings next year.