A breakaway is a lot harder than the word implies. The word nails the fact that you’re sprinting your tail off, but it doesn’t account for what’s chasing you, nor what you’re yet to face. A one-on-one against a goalkeeper is a scrap won by angles and precision. A smart keeper isn’t walking into it scared. All of the pressure is on the attacker, but it’s not so simple. When a keeper comes out and closes down the space, gets all Batman, low but upright, arms out and wide in the “starfish” position, bouncing on their feet, all composed — like “What, dude? What are you doing here?” — when they do this, they dictate the action, they force you to beat them. You’re running full sprint sometimes with ten defenders chasing you, so whatever you’re going to do to beat this not scared keeper, you’d better hurry up.
Of course, elite attackers make this look easy. These players succeed where the difference between doing their job and disappointing a worldwide fandom is executing with acute precision while under such pressures. Frenchman Antoine Griezmann gets it done on the regular.
Griezmann’s game is like Ronaldinho’s. He has a high level of flare and touch on the ball. He attacks with speed, with skill, and with an eye for getting into dangerous positions. He’s also an aggressive defender. He and Messi have been playing against each other for years in Spain, and Griezmann’s feisty tackles fly when they match up. As his manager, you’ll take his lunging tackles because it intimidates opposing players, but you want him on the field for his coolness when big moments like breakaways come, when the whole team has worked for it — from the club’s boot shiner to all ten teammates eagerly watching from behind — and there is no missing.
In this season’s group stages of the Champions League, Griezmann’s club, Atlético Madrid, faced German wunderklub Borussia Dortmund twice in two weeks. The first game was in Dortmund, and the Germans laid down a deceiving 4-0 thumping. Three of Dortmund’s goals came in the last 20 minutes, and Atletico hit the bar twice. It was a loss that had to make Atlético’s teeth hurt.
Two weeks later, the second match was in Madrid. A Dortmund win would mean they clinched the group and were on to the Round of 16. Unfortunately for Dortmund, Atlético has the passion of its manager, Diego Simeone, so the idea of watching Dortmund celebrate their passage into the Round of 16 on Atlético’s grounds was downright sickening.
The team came out furious. They attacked early and often, breaking through finally in the 33rd minute with fullback Filipe Luís marauding down the left side. He took the ball as deep as the six yard box then passed it back to the penalty spot. An Ángel Correa dummy later, Saúl Ñíguez flubbed the shot off a Dortmund defender and into the net. Not pretty, but 1-0.
Straight off the restart, Atlético pressed for more. They won possession after a Dortmund goal kick and quickly worked the ball to their Ghanaian midfielder Thomas Partey. Thirty yards out, no defender nearby, he had three teammates in good positions forward, but he didn’t pass. He took one touch then became aggressive and unpredictable, two traits that make for great attacking. When you're unpredictable, the defense is not set, not prepared to defend in the way to match your attack. When they're not prepared, as the attacker, that's when it's best to get aggressive. You have the highest chance for success. Partey shot a long range howler, and the keeper, not anticipating a shot, was a step behind it.
Just a kiss for the bar this time.
For a long stretch of the game, Dortmund knocked on Atlético’s defense, and Atlético kept them back. A defense will only hold for so long though, and a one goal lead is a slip away from a tied game. Atlético needed to score a second goal to close the Germans out.
In the 80th minute, Dortmund were attacking again, but Atlético stopped them at the top of the box and broke into a counter attack. Dortmund had eight guys forward, so the counter quickly turned into a three-on-three at the halfway line — game on. Atlético’s Gelson Martins led with the ball on the left side, Partey was in the center. Partey crossed the halfway line at a sprint for the left corner flag, dragging the attention of two Dortmund defenders. While beyond Partey, dead center of the field, all alone, and keeping with the play, lurked Antoine Griezmann.
Martins passed to Partey, sending him towards the left corner. The two defenders converged on him, and if Partey wanted to find the open Griezmann, he would again have to be unpredictable and aggressive. Instead of taking the ball to the endline and in the direction he was headed, Partey ran across the ball, moving it from his left side to his right, thus opening the center of the field for just a short moment before the defenders could re-calculate. Be aggressive. He split the defenders.
Dortmund couldn’t keep up with Thomas Partey that day, and now thanks to him, Griezmann was through on a breakaway. The fatigue from 80 minutes of play vanished. No more lurking. The spotlight was on him. A world of hope would turn on how he performed.
Griezmann drove the ball forward. After three touches, he was in the box, left of center. The goalkeeper was out to cut down the angle. He stood his ground, arms wide, Batman position. A defender had caught up. He swiped at the ball from behind, pulled on Griezmann’s arm, knocked him off balance, but Griezmann was so locked into the moment that he might as well have been thousands of miles away, putting on a tropical golf course, a man at peace.
The finish was all about the angle. Griezmann used the inside of his foot. He had to hop off his planted right foot to give his left enough reach to cut the angle. A slow roller to the far post was aggressive given the precision necessary to carry the shot out. It was unpredictable for sure — Dortmund keeper Roman Bürki was ready for something high or near post. But most importantly, as always, aggressive and unpredictable aside, results are what matter.
Griezmann’s shot passed Bürki’s boot close enough to clean it, but it passed.
All of Partey’s good work, all of Atlético’s defending, Griezmann had the skill and audacity to make it all pay off and make a breakaway seem like a sure thing. Just another day at work. Griezmann didn’t even watch the ball hit the net. As it passed the fallen goalkeeper, Griezmann ran straight to the roaring fans. He held up the Atlético patch on his jersey, and he kissed it.