Griezmann's struggles open door for Nkunku at World Cup

AP , Saturday 18 Jun 2022

Antoine Griezmann's alarming drop in form means his starting place for France at the World Cup is under threat from Christopher Nkunku.

Austria s defender Gernot Trauner (L) and France s forward Antoine Griezmann vie for the ball during the UEFA Nations League football match Austria v France at the Ernst Happel stadium in Vienna, Austria on June 10, 2022. AFP

If Griezmann's struggles continue in two international matches in September, coach Didier Deschamps could select Leipzig's Nkunku when France begins its title defense in Qatar two months later.

``They have two different profiles. Christopher is perhaps more of a striker than Antoine, who is more of a creator,'' Deschamps said recently. ``Athletically they're not the same, and not just in terms of size and physique.''

The 24-year-old Nkunku is a quick and skillful player who operates as a forward or an attacking midfielder. He was voted the German league's best player by his fellow professionals last season after scoring 35 goals overall and providing 14 league assists. In stark contrast, Griezmann has not scored for France or Atletico Madrid since early January.

Nkunku started ahead of Griezmann in a Nations League match against Croatia on Monday. In the match before at Austria, Nkunku came off the bench and with an astute pass set up the equalizer for Kylian Mbappe.

Nkunku's style of play offers France a more direct approach.

``Christopher's good in the air, too. Even though he's not that tall he jumps well, and can make runs into space,`` Deschamps said. ``Antoine can do that as well, but he is more involved in the buildup and organization.''

For many years, dropping Griezmann would have been unthinkable for Deschamps, who is very close to the player and admires his unselfish attitude. Griezmann has played 108 times, but recent performances have not been good and he was taken off after 63 minutes in Austria.

``He knows he's not in his best form. It shows in his game and his influence on our attack,`` Deschamps said recently. ``It's not his best period. Some of it is physical, some of it is mental. (But) I'm not saying he's worn out.``

Something that never changes with Griezmann is that he never stops working hard. France teammate Karim Benzema said it's important to ``look at the other things he does, the way he drops back and defends.''

``He will score at some stage,'' Benzema said.

Griezmann is third on France's all-time list of scorers with 42 goals. But the 31-year-old forward's scoring touch has deserted him to such an extent that he managed only three league goals in 26 games for Atletico last season.

It's a far cry from his prolific spell with the Colchoneros, when he netted 133 goals overall in 257 games before joining Barcelona in 2021. He did well in spells there, but his return of 35 goals in 102 games fell below expectations and his confidence started to wane.

Fast forward to Monday night at Stade de France, and Grizemann only came on for the last 15 minutes against Croatia. Les Bleus lost 1-0 and relinquished the Nations League title. Rock-bottom France faces the prospect of relegation to the second-tier league and must bounce back at home to Austria on Sept. 22 and in Denmark three days later.

Those games could also influence whether Griezmann is a starter or a substitute when France begins its title defense against Australia in Qatar on Nov. 22.

His squad place looks a certainty, however.

``I know his ability and his mental strength. He's not having his best period but that doesn't mean I'm going to question what he's capable of doing,`` Deschamps said. ``I know very well what he brings.''

Griezmann started the season with Barcelona before re-joining Atletico. He said the different ways the clubs prepare for the season has affected his form in the national team.

``I was a bit tired physically after the efforts I made, just like with my club. My preseason with Barcelona was completely different to how Atletico plays,'' Griezmann said after the 2-1 loss to Denmark on June 3 when he came off after 78 minutes.

He predicts he'll be ``much better physically'' after a full preseason with Atletico.

Deschamps also has other things on mind, not least sorting out his squad. France looked poor in the Nations League, losing at home to Denmark and Croatia and also drawing in Croatia.

``We have to question everything. We lacked strength, character and energy. The highest level can be unforgiving,'' Deschamps said. ``I hope we can get our strength back and the players recover their fighting spirit. Did some of them get ahead of themselves?''

Such poor form is unbefitting France, which also reached the final of the European Championship in 2016.

``We'll need to show a lot more if we want to maintain our status,`` Deschamps said. ``From the moment you're not doing things well enough, you must do your own self-criticism.``

There were mitigating circumstances, like injuries to key midfielders Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante, and central defender Raphael Varane _ who only played one game.

``We've had far more injuries than we're used to,`` Deschamps said.

Some of the tactical choices he made were questioned, like switching from a three-man defense to a four-man unit.

``Because you have a system it doesn't mean that you have to stick with it,`` said Deschamps, sounding somewhat confused about how his own team should play.

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