Giroud and Walcott's blossoming partnership a hint of Arsenal's attacking potential

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses the FREE FourFourTwo/Opta StatsZone app to analyse Arsenal's ever-improving forward partnership...  

There was something particularly noteworthy about the way Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott combined for Arsenal’s equaliser against Liverpool on Wednesday evening. It wasn’t just the goal itself, but the fact it meant Giroud and Walcott became the most prolific assist-goal partnership in the league this season – they’ve set each other up seven times in 2012/13.

It’s particularly intriguing considering Walcott and Robin van Persie topped that list in 2011/12, producing nine goals as a duo. Walcott has developed into a fine attacker in the past couple of seasons, but there was always a danger that his good form was primarily because of van Persie’s movement, link-up play and ability to attract opposition defenders towards him, creating gaps elsewhere. Still, Walcott has managed to replicate that understanding with Giroud – particularly handy, given the inevitable comparisons between Arsenal strikers.

Giroud’s delicate touch to play the ball to Walcott on Wednesday wasn’t spectacular, but it’s something Giroud is very good at – and something Arsenal haven’t fully taken advantage of this season.

Giroud’s title-winning season with Montpellier – when he also jointly won Ligue 1’s Golden Boot – first attracted Arsene Wenger’s interest, but his international performances last summer truly convinced the Arsenal manager to sign him. Giroud had few opportunities to impress at Euro 2012, but he made the most of his pre-tournament friendly appearances – Wenger was working at those matches as a co-commentator, and saw his brilliance first-hand.

Giroud was only a substitute in all three pre-tournament warm-up games, but he managed to collect three assists. In particular, his hold-up play against Iceland was exceptional – France had gone 2-0 down after a poor first half performance, and struggled to find a way part Iceland’s 'parked bus'.

Giroud replaced Hatem Ben Arfa in the second half, and promptly produced one of the finest displays of hold-up play you’ll see – France’s entire gameplan revolved around knocking the ball into Giroud, then getting midfielder runners close to him, ready to collect his return passes. Franck Ribery played a delicious one-two with Giroud for the equaliser, then Adil Rami was assisted by Giroud for the winner. Wenger spoke highly of him in his commentary, and made a point of meeting Giroud after one of France’s Euro 2012 matches.

At Montpellier, Giroud benefited by playing with an attack-minded number ten, Younes Belhanda, who positioned himself close to Giroud, ready for the knock-downs and flick-ons. At Arsenal, Giroud doesn’t have the same type of player to link with – Santi Cazorla is a great playmaker, but tends to drop deeper and get involved in the centre of midfield. Instead, Giroud has been forced to alter his game, and it is Walcott and Lukas Podolski, who start much wider, that usually offer his closest support.

Gradually, Arsenal have started to make the most of Giroud’s clever link-up play. Kieran Gibbs’ goal in the FA Cup at Swansea, for example, was a perfect example – he played a short pass into Giroud, then charged past opponents, confident of getting a perfect return pass. Giroud chipped the ball beautifully into his path, and Gibbs smashed it into the net. It was a superb goal, straight out of the ‘headers and volleys’ textbook.

But Walcott remains the man Giroud is most likely to combine with. The one-twos are increasingly becoming a feature of their game – the Liverpool match showed that Walcott understands he’s supposed to play the ball to Giroud on the edge of the ‘D’ – Giroud’s return pass towards Walcott is always more difficult, but when it works, it can be highly effective. Giroud only found Walcott once – but it was the assist for the equaliser.

However, it’s worth mentioning that Giroud still needs to get himself into the box having played one-twos – something he’s done well in recent weeks. Unlike van Persie, Thierry Henry or Dennis Bergkamp, for example, Giroud isn’t prolific from long-range and remains a penalty box prowler, darting to the near post and scoring a high percentage of his goals from inside the six-yard box.

Giroud’s goals are vital, but the combination with Walcott might please Wenger more. His sides have often depended upon strikers linking cleverley with wide players – van Persie with Walcott most recently, but also Bergkamp with Freddie Ljungberg, and Henry with Robert Pires. Giroud and Walcott aren’t close to that level yet, but their recent performance hint at real potential.

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