Seeing France reach the final of Euro 2016 was not a surprising outcome for many, given pre-tournament predictions. The way in which they disposed of world champions Germany in the semi-final, however, was. Despite the German side missing some key names, with Mario Gomez and Sami Khedira missing through injury and Mats Hummels suspended, they took control of the first half, pinning France back in their own half, and dominating possession. But it was a soft handball given against Bastian Schweinsteiger on the stroke of half-time that allowed the host nation a way into the match, and in doing so, allowed their attacking magician Antoine Griezmann an opportunity to stamp his authority on to the match. He dispatched the penalty with aplomb, sending Manuel Neuer the wrong way and shocking the dominating Germans in the process.
With a first half lead, France were able to come out and take the game to the Germans, with Griezmann conducting proceedings. Germany were forced to sacrifice holding midfielder Emre Can for attacking midfielder Mario Gotze in their search for an equaliser, allowing space for Griezmann to operate even more effectively in. Indeed, the Atletico Madrid forward was able to pounce on a Paul Pogba cross, flapped at by Manuel Neuer, to poke home a second French goal and effectively kill the tie and book the host nation’s place in the final against Portugal on Sunday.
Whilst his ability to control the game became more apparent after the sacrificing of a holding midfielder, he is always the creative force in the French team, even more so since Didier Deschamps changed the side’s formation to a 4-2-3-1, with Griezmann operating behind Olivier Giroud in the classic ‘number 10’ role. It is down to Griezmann’s footballing education in Spain that he is so influential a playmaker; he joined Real Sociedad on a youth contract at the age of 13, in 2005. His development, in a Spanish youth system as opposed to a French one, is clear to see; Griezmann’s awareness of both his teammates and opponents on the pitch is obvious whenever he plays, and his ability to find space, and time on the ball, is reminiscent of some of the great Spanish playmakers of the past decade. Despite playing as more of a forward than a midfielder, there are similarities to draw between Griezmann’s quick link-up play with his teammates and that of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez during their peak at Barcelona. Furthermore, his ability to run with the ball, draw defenders and glide past them was apparent on Thursday night’s semi final; this dribbling ability is reminiscent of one Lionel Messi who, although being Argentinian, developed his footballing ability in a Spanish academy from a young age, at Barcelona.
So whilst the Atleti forward, who scored a career best 32 goals in the 2015-16 season and leads the Euro 2016 golden boot race with six goals so far, is clearly talented, how is his talent so effective in this French side? In a tournament where the Spanish tiki-taka was found out and saw them knocked out in the last 16, how has Griezmann’s Spanish education helped France reach the final? The answer, quite simply, is that it is an individual’s ability, which is complimented by the team around him. With Olivier Giroud, a more typical ‘number 9’ striker, leading the line for France, Griezmann is afforded more licence for creativity. Giroud pushes forward onto the opposition centre backs, with Griezmann in the space behind, leaving the opposition in doubt as to whether it is the job of a centre back or a defensive midfielder to pick him up. This confusion drags the opposition out of shape, creating more space for Griezmann and his other creative compatriots to exploit. He also has the capability of going beyond Giroud, running on to flick-ons from the Arsenal man and demonstrating his clinical finishing ability; his goal in the quarter-final against Iceland is the perfect example of this. Throw in the midfield powerhouses of Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba sat behind him, and the option of out-muscling Griezmann’s small frame is all but gone; with the two midfield runners keen to break forward and join the attack, they drag the strongest opposition defenders to them, again creating space for Griezmann to work his magic. As we’ve seen throughout the tournament, this has proved rather successful for the host nation.
It would be unfair to argue that France have reached the final of Euro 2016 purely because of the influence of Antoine Griezmann; Dimitri Payet was the player responsible for their success in the tournament’s opening match, while goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba and Olivier Giroud have all impressed, among others. Rather than being an individual, Griezmann has acted as the talisman of the team, the maverick, the player to turn to for a moment of magic. It seems only fitting, therefore, that it was he who scored both goals in the semi-final, booking France’s place in the final against Portugal; furthermore, it gives Griezmann the opportunity to come up against the country his grandfather, a former professional footballer, originated from. The question now is whether Griezmann, the Frenchman raised on Spanish football, can perform on the biggest stage of all, in the final in Paris on Sunday; based on what we’ve seen so far this tournament, there is little evidence to suggest that Monsieur Griezmann will fail to deliver.