The only real surprise about Antoine Griezmann’s move to Barcelona, perhaps, is that it didn’t happen two years ago. The $135 million deal was finalized on Friday, but Barcelona has been tracking the France international since Neymar left—and it will have escaped nobody’s notice that, even if it is an unintended consequence rather than part of some dastardly revenge plot, that by signing Griezmann Barça has effectively left Neymar high and dry.
Lionel Messi has never hidden his admiration for Griezmann, whose versatility should make him ideal for a Barça front line that has perhaps lacked a little fluency over the past couple of years. Luis Suarez has always been a little more equivocal, seemingly baffled by Griezmann’s love for Uruguay, but there is no reason why the three shouldn’t play together.
In the short term it seems likely that Griezmann will operate on the left with Suarez through the middle and Messi on the right. In the longer term, though, given Suarez is 32, it seems probable Griezmann will replace him through the middle with, Barça hopes, Ousmane Dembele establishing himself on the left. That’s one of the advantages of Griezmann: he can play wide or through the middle, as an out-and-out center forward or as somebody who drops deep to create space for players cutting in from wide. He’s not just a very fine player in his own right but offers cover in a number of positions.
All of which does rather demand the question of why it has taken until now for the deal to be done. Perhaps the sudden nature of Neymar’s departure made it impossible to move in 2017, but last summer it seemed likely Griezmann would go, only for him to explain in a televised documentary his love for Atletico and his reluctance to leave. Atletico, understandably, has been frustrated by the conduct of both the 28-year-old and Barça, particularly when it emerged in March that the two parties were negotiating, at a time when Atletico was in contention for both La Liga and the Champions League. Even after the announcement, the saga continues: Atletico is demanding $90 million more to reflect the size of Griezmann's release clause when Atletico alleges the agreement between the two clubs was made, as opposed to the number Barcelona feels it should pay after his clause was reduced on June 1. Regardless, how long Griezmann stays at Barcelona is another question, but he has spoken of finishing his career in MLS and a move to the USA would seem likely after the 2022 World Cup.
There must also be a question about Philippe Coutinho. Although there’s unlikely to be any financial imperative to move the Brazilian on, after a disappointing season and a half at the Camp Nou, there must be serious questions about where he fits in. Barça, in truth, never quite seemed to know what sort of player it had bought. With a front three as mobile and dynamic as Barça now has again, it’s hard to see how it can accommodate a playmaker at the front of midfield, as well as Coutinho performed in that role for Brazil in the Copa America alongside his Barça teammate Arthur. It would be no surprise were Coutinho to be offloaded to fund a wider reconstruction of a midfield that hasn’t been quite right for a couple of years.
But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the deal is what it means for Neymar. The Brazilian seems belatedly to have realized that being by far the biggest fish in a small pond was not necessarily the best thing for his career development, his desire to get out of Paris presumably only heightened by the rape allegations against him.
As negotiations with Griezmann went on, Barça let it be known it would countenance re-signing Neymar. There’s no reason not to take that at face value, despite the dismay the club felt when Neymar abandoned it. Neymar’s head was turned and he began to consider a return to the club for whom he played his best football. PSG, bowing to the inevitable, gave him permission to leave. Suddenly he isn’t the golden child on whom the entire project rests. But then Barça withdrew its interest and suddenly Neymar is left in a very awkward position. Who else who could afford him would he want to join?
In that sense, this is the perfect signing for Barça. Not only has it landed in Greizmann a forward who seems a very natural fit for its side, but it has had its revenge on Neymar and PSG.