At this point, it is no secret that Antoine Griezmann is Manchester United’s primary summer transfer target.
The Red Devils are reportedly willing to meet the Frenchman’s £86million release clause, but contradictory reports continue to surface speculating over whether or not the player is willing to leave Atlético Madrid to move to Old Trafford.
The Football Whispers Index currently rates United’s chances of signing Griezmann at 4.0 out of five, which suggests that José Mourinho might just get his man.
But if the 26-year-old superstar does arrive in Manchester, Mourinho will have somewhat of a selection dilemma on his hands, albeit one that most managers would kill to be troubled with.
The Mâcon-born forward has bagged 22 goals from 40 games this season, was exceptional at last summer’s European Championships and came third in the running of the Ballon d’Or – he is undoubtedly one of the very best players in the world and would be a huge coup for the Red Devils.
Yet, fitting Griezmann into the United line-up is not as simple as it might seem.
At his best as a second striker playing off a more conventional No.9, the French international has excelled when partnered with compatriot Kévin Gameiro at the Vicente Calderón this term, while his form went through the roof at the Euros when he was moved off the right flank to partner Olivier Giroud in attack.
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The role of second striker is one that is often misunderstood and misinterpreted and being akin to that of a No.10.
Griezmann is not the kind of advanced playmaker who you would typically describe as a N.10 – someone who operates ahead of the midfield and through whom all of the team’s attacks are funnelled, linking with the deeper midfielders and spreading play to the wings.
Griezmann does operate between the lines of the opposition’s midfield and defence like a No.10, but he does so in much closer proximity to the central striker, collecting the ball within striking distance of goal and causing uncertainty within the opponent’s backline thanks to his ability to shoot from range, dribble beyond his marker or pick out his partner.
In this respect, the systems Mourinho has been using this term have no natural place for Griezmann. And though they could be adapted to accommodate him, this could result in other members of the team having to settle for a sub-optimum role.
Here are three ways the Red Devils could line up next season with Griezmann in the team.
United have often been sent out in a 4-2-3-1 formation this season when faced with inferior opposition, usually at home. The reason Mourinho has tended to move away from this shape against more threatening sides is that, playing in one of the deep midfield positions, Paul Pogba does not offer adequate defensive cover, and the 20-time champions have been exposed when opponents exploit the space the £89million man leaves in behind.
The 4-2-3-1 set-up is the easiest of United’s familiar formations in which to fit Griezmann: the Atléti star would supplant whoever would usually start in the No.10 position – most often Juan Mata – and tweak the role slightly, allowing him to play closer to Zlatan Ibrahimović.
However, as this is a formation Mourinho only seems to trust against weaker foes, it would not be an ideal solution for the whole season. The more time spent in this shape, the more Pogba is forced to play in a position that doesn’t suit him, too.
When Les Bleus coach Deschamps moved Griezmann into a central position at last summer’s Euros, the switch necessitated Pogba shifting back into a deep cetral midfield duo. At the time, much was made of how little the former Juventus man was able to influence games in the latter stages of the tournament, and this change of role was largely to blame.
If Mourinho hopes to fit Griezmann into a 4-2-3-1 shape in this way, he risks negating the gifts of the superstar he already has, in favour of fitting in the one he hopes to sign.
The other primary formation that the former Chelsea boss has used this season is 4-3-3. In this shape, Pogba slots right into his preferred position in the left of the midfield three. From there, he is able to roam from his starting positon into advanced areas without being overly concerned about exposing his side defensively.
However, with nobody playing “in the hole” behind the central striker, there is no obvious position for Griezmann to come into.
When he was at Real Sociedad, the Frenchman was primarily a left winger, with his pace and technique making him a threat in wide areas, while for France he has often played on the right.
But anyone who has seen him play regularly for Atlético will argue that he has to be deployed centrally in order to maximise his gifts. This opens up the possibility of Griezmann taking Ibrahimović’s position as the No.9, and in some respects there is reason to believe that this could be a viable option.
If United are looking to play on the break, Griezmann’s lightening pace at the point of the attack could prove invaluable. However, withough a strike partner stretching play and opening up space for him, against a defence looking to sit deep and frustrate, he could be nullified.
The happy medium is to use Griezmann as a false nine, starting as the central striker but being given licence to roam.
If United’s wingers – ideally Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan — exploit the space the 41-cap Les Bleus star vacates by making well-timed runs into the penalty area, Griezmann will be able to operate slightly deeper and still benefit from the free acreage he would see if playing off a No.9, as the wide men would be stretching the opposition and preventing their defensive line from pushing high.
An option that is seldom considered, yet could hold the key to getting the best out of both Pogba and Griezmann, is 3-5-2.
Pogba thrived in this very same formation under Antonio Conte at Juventus, playing, as he does in 4-3-3, on the left of the midfield trio. Only this time, Griezmann could operate as a second striker as the system allows for two players to lead the line.
With Ibrahimović as the spearhead of the attack — acting as a target man, holding up the ball and linking play as he is so expertly capable of doing — Griezmann would see no shortage of scoring opportunities, while Pogba would be free of the defensive duties which shackle him in 4-2-3-1.
This would, however, mean that United’s wide attackers have to either adapt to a new role or miss out entirely. With the wing-backs providing the width and no allowance for a No.10 behind the strikers, Martial, Mkhitaryan, Mata and Jesse Lingard would be in danger of becoming redundant if they cannot learn to play somewhere in the midfield three or compete for a starting berth in attack.
Signing a player of Griezmann’s undoubted quality feels like a no-brainer for United. But re-organising the line-up to get the best out of the Frenchman, as well as the stars already at Old Trafford, presents a significant quandary for Mourinho.