Metronomic Antoine Griezmann proves why he's France's 'go-to guy'

France's Antoine Griezmann goes with the ball during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between England and France, at the Al Bayt Stadium - AP
France's Antoine Griezmann goes with the ball during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between England and France, at the Al Bayt Stadium - AP

There was always a chance that England would be undone by a Kylian Mbappe confidence trick. The one they fell for was all misdirection. France have bigger stars now than Antoine Griezmann, but his dangers were hiding in plain sight at Al Bayt.

With England distracted trying to stop Mbappe, Griezmann was allowed to play the role of conductor in France’s midfield. It was not a flashy night, but he made two goals and demonstrated his team’s superiority through the medium of tidy passing.

He formed a fruitful triangle with Ousamane Dembele and full-back Jules Kounde on the right. Only Kounde, with 49, had more France passes than Griezmann’s 48. He and Kounde also led the way for touches for France, with 58 each.

But Griezmann exerted just as much influence off the ball. He seemed particularly keen to show up Jude Bellingham, in an entertaining duel. Sometimes it got physical and Griezmann is a more potent presence than given credit for.

When Bellingham had a rare moment on the ball in the France box, Griezmann gently eased him out of it and into a backwards pass. Shortly afterwards Griezmann drifted off Bellingham and into space on the right wing. Bellingham had his number on this occasion and they seemed generally well-matched, but the Englishman could learn from his opponent’s versatility. He has reinvented himself at 31, and not for the first time.

Griezmann’s career started out wide before evolving into a second striker with highly creative tendencies. Now he is an all-action central presence, a link between midfield and attack, the world’s first shallow-lying midfielder. As such he has done an excellent job in Qatar filling in for French absentees Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante simultaneously.

Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud of France celebrate after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 quarter final match between England and France at Al Bayt Stadium - Getty Images
Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud of France celebrate after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 quarter final match between England and France at Al Bayt Stadium - Getty Images

His first half against England was a fan-pleasing greatest hits set, complete with the easiest assist he will ever register for Aurelien Tchouameni’s opening goal. Declan Rice tried desperately to foul the galloping Mbappe, but could not reach him. After neat work from Dembele the ball was at the feet of Griezmann.

A prompt, perfect pass to the man in space was his unsurprising choice. One great shot later and Griezmann could luxuriate in his first ‘goal involvement,’ for those keeping track of such things. But as with the act of goalscoring, it is about being in the right positions to make these things happen.

More frequently his game was about metronomic tempo-setting and sensible decisions in dicey situations. When England rallied after conceding the opener, Griezmann received the ball under pressure in his own half.

The natural impulse is to look forwards, but he fizzed a pass into the feet of centre-back Dayot Upamecano, knowing he would be sharp enough to work it left to the man with space to spare, Theo Hernandez. Sometimes when France countered he would hang back and let his younger team-mates make the running.

In these moments Griezmann pointed the way, like this World Cup’s generous army of volunteers directing pedestrians in lieu of proper signage. Occasionally his conservatism was to his detriment. He had 10 yards of England’s half to run into during first half injury time but languorously swept another short pass into a team-mate rather than attempting to scare an edgy defence.

Little matter, with his team leading at the break. It seemed like a precious chance missed when Harry Kane stood over the penalty spot nine minutes into the second half. Greizmann took up position five yards from the edge of the D, crouching behind Mbappe. When it was scored his gaze did not alter, he walked backwards to the centre circle talking to his defenders and pointing to both eyes, in that universally understood football mime for “concentrate!"

Some legginess crept in. Rice easily bypassed one half-hearted press with a simple ball. Phil Foden drifted away from him, like Mbappe had Rice before the first goal. Yet he was still the go-to guy every time France looked to start a move, and the passing was reliably crisp and unerring.

Then, the sting in the tale. With 12 minutes left and England looking marginally more likely to score, Griezmann delivered a beautiful cross for Olivier Giroud, the header’s header. He could scarcely miss, unlike Harry Kane with his second penalty.

Didier Deschamps, like Gareth Southgate, is a pragmatist, just one with slightly sharper tools. What is the character, the DNA of his shapeshifting France team, other than everything England hope to be?

Whatever it is, Antoine Griezmann has it in spades.