Sat stony-faced in the stands of Son Moix, substituted off before the hour mark against Real Mallorca, Antoine Griezmann was in no mood to talk to anyone, which was just as well given the new social distancing rules in La Liga, which means substitutes must now sit far apart from each other. The distance between the Frenchman and his Barcelona teammates had been nearly as big on the pitch.
It was a moment that provided a fresh depiction of the attacking hierarchy within Quique Setien’s side. Luis Suarez was always likely to appear in the second half, making his return from injury having undergone knee surgery in February, but the player the Uruguayan replaced in the Barça lineup was more notable.
While Griezmann, the €120 million World Cup winner signed from Atlético Madrid last summer, took his seat in the stands, Martin Braithwaite, the Danish striker signed from relegation-threatened Leganés due to an injury crisis at the start of the year, was kept on the pitch for the full 90 minutes.
This wasn’t due to any rotation policy or desire to keep Griezmann fresh. Braithwaite, as things currently stand, is just a better fit for Setien’s Barça side than the Frenchman. Deployed on the left side of the Catalans’ attack against Real Mallorca, Braithwaite complimented both Lionel Messi and Suarez once he was introduced. In stark contrast, Griezmann looked completely out of sync.
It’s been that way for Griezmann since his arrival at the Camp Nou last summer. There is little doubting the Frenchman’s quality and pedigree. He is one of the best forwards of his generation, proven over many years at Atleti and as France’s main man at the 2018 World Cup and 2016 European Championships. A great player, no question, but great Barcelona players require something a little different.
Braithwaite, in spite of his far from conventional route to the Camp Nou via Middlesbrough and Leganés, appears to fit the bill a little better. Not only has the Dane carried a goal threat in his first few appearances for Barcelona, he creates space for others in a way Griezmann does not. The likes of Arturo Vidal, Frenkie de Jong and most importantly Messi are all better with Braithwaite alongside them.
A big part of Griezmann’s problem is tactical. For both Atlético Madrid and France, he thrived as part of a two-man attack. Playing off someone like Diego Costa and Olivier Giroud, he is at his best, given the freedom to fill the space around an attacking apex. That freedom and that space is something Griezmann is denied in Barcelona’s 4-3-3 shape, where Messi and Suarez often play around their French teammate, often to the point of being comical.
With Suarez sidelined through injury in February, Griezmann has even been given the chance to prove that he can replace the Uruguayan as Barça’s number nine, as Messi’s primary partner. Not even this has made the Frenchman look more at home at the Camp Nou. In fact, Griezmann has looked more like a misfit with almost every match he has played for the Catalans this season. While there were initially signs of growth, now there are barely any.
The return of Suarez could give Barcelona’s title defence a shot in the arm. Speculation over a potential summer move for Inter striker Lautaro Martinez persist, but the Uruguayan remains a part of the club’s core along with Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique. So much at the Camp Nou right now is about harnessing Messi as he enters his twilight years and Suarez is the best partner Messi has ever had.
Braithwaite, however, has proven that there may be another way to ease Messi into the final phase of his career in a way Griezmann hasn’t. It might require a slight shuffling of the pack, Messi might have to play more centrally or drop a little deeper to allow teenage prodigy Ansu Fati to play ahead of him, but Braithwaite offers clarity on Barcelona’s future, both in the short and medium term.
Right now, the Dane must merely help Barça cross the finish line first. Signed as injury cover for Suarez, it could be argued that there is no real need for Braithwaite at the Camp Nou any longer now that the Uruguayan is nearing full fitness again. But anyone who makes that argument has not witnessed the impact made by an unlikely player fulfilling an important role.