How Giroud became irreplaceable for Wenger – and why he's still on the up
WHO NEEDS VAN PERSIE?
- 2012/13 47 apps, 17 goals
- 2013/14 51 apps, 22 goals
- 2014/15 19 apps, 11 goals
Criticising footballers who appear awkward or out of place is easy business – and in Olivier Giroud's case, his critics need no second invitation.
At first glance Giroud is a tall, ambling and limited hunk of a centre-forward whose style stands in sharp contrast to the Gunners' band of diminutive, fleet-footed technicians.
Scratch beneath the surface, however, and what you'll discover is a consistently improving striker who Arsene Wenger describes as "the perfect centre forward" for Arsenal.
Fresh from netting the double which put Middlesbrough to the sword in the FA Cup fifth round, Giroud scored his 11th goal in 19 games in the 2-1 win over Crystal Palace last Saturday, becoming the 48th player in Arsenal's history to score 50 goals or more.
It has been a far from ideal campaign for the Frenchman, who was first ruled out for three months with a broken leg sustained at Everton and then sent off on Boxing Day against QPR.
In spite of these mitigating factors, he has returned eight league goals and two assists in 15 appearances. In a season where most of the headlines have been grabbed – understandably – by Alexis Sanchez’s seamless adaptation to English football, Giroud’s heroics have flown under the radar.
Raiding the Palace
In what was mostly a backs-to-the-wall, smash-and-grab victory at Palace, Arsenal withstood considerable pressure from their hosts, especially in the second half, and relied on fast breaks.
With Santi Cazorla, Sanchez, and Mesut Ozil buzzing around him, Giroud was an integral component of Arsenal’s numerous flowing counter-attacks. Receiving the ball 52 times – more than any player from either side – he served as a crucial outlet to hold the ball up, bring others into play or simply slow down the pace of the game to soak up pressure.
The most frequent pass combination of the clash at Selhurst Park (16) was between Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina and Giroud, an indication that should Arsenal need to play a more direct style, they have a centre-forward capable of thriving in those conditions.
In a game where Arsenal ceded majority of the possession to their hosts, the Frenchman was effective with his use of the ball, scoring from one of his two efforts on target.
Giroud won 10/17 aerial duels, and even made two headed clearances. Not only did he win the game with his quick awareness after Danny Welbeck’s shot was saved, he put in an industrious all-round performance.
Despite standing at an impressive 6ft 3in, Giroud is not a battering ram cut from the same cloth as Sanchez, and like every other footballer he is not without his faults.
He's often accused of flailing his arms in the air looking for a non-existent foul. But what he offers the team is markedly unique from Arsenal’s other attacking options.
While Welbeck, Sanchez and Theo Walcott can all shuffle across the front three, Giroud serves as a focal point to an attack that may sometimes seem to lack focus and direction.
For him and for Arsenal, it's the perfect storm. With him in the side, the Gunners attack more effectively, as he plays mostly with his back to goal to bring others into play with deft flicks and one-touch passing.
Good feet for...
It is commonplace for pundits and analysts to be patronising towards big centre-forwards (Rickie Lambert, Peter Crouch and Andy Carroll to name a few) by praising their abilities as actual footballers (there's probably a phrase for that somewhere), but Giroud genuinely has superb footwork and technique to show he is just as comfortable with the ball in the air as he is with it at his feet.
That he has been involved in many of Arsenal’s well-worked team goals (Jack Wilshere’s against Norwich last season, for example) is testament to this. As if to demonstrate he is no one-trick pony, Giroud attempted and successfully completed both of his take-ons against Palace, one in particular worthy of a spot on the highlights reel. Receiving the ball just past the halfway line and facing away from the Palace goal, he turned Scott Dann inside out, leaving the centre-back in a heap and in need of medical attention.
About this time last year, there were serious concerns about his place in the side; Yaya Sanogo started important fixtures against Bayern Munich and Liverpool as Giroud struggled for form and dealt with tabloid allegations of an extramarital affair.
But 12 months later, the Frenchman's name on the team-sheet is as secure as it ever was. In January there was a vote of confidence from Wenger towards his favoured centre-forward: Lukas Podolski, Joel Campbell and Sanogo were all allowed to leave on loan deals to Inter Milan, Villarreal and Crystal Palace respectively.
All three have auditioned and subsequently failed to land Giroud’s role in the side, leaving Wenger to clear the way for his French hitman to take centre stage.
But the Arsenal manager’s renewed belief in Giroud is also bad news for Welbeck, who has had to settle for a place out wide yet again despite arriving at Arsenal in hope of playing regularly in his preferred centre-forward role – an opportunity he found hard to come by at Manchester United.
At 28, Giroud is something of a late bloomer having taken the long route from Ligue 1 unknown to a striker leading the line for a top Premier League side. As recently as 2010, he was still playing for French second division side Tours on loan from Montpellier alongside current Arsenal team-mate Laurent Koscielny.
Yet interestingly, Giroud has proved he is still a player capable of consistent improvement. In his first season at Arsenal he scored 17 goals, and then 22 last season as they won the FA Cup. Despite an injury-blighted 2014/15 he has hit double figures, and with the creative talents of Ozil and Cazorla providing ample ammunition behind him, he could well match his goalscoring efforts of last season.
It’s something not lost on his manager. Wenger was effusive in his praise of his countryman after the striker's match-winning performance at Palace. “He had an important part in a game as direct as that, to keep the ball, to close them down,” said the Gunners chief.
“Overall he had a great contribution. I’m happy for him. [Between] when I brought him here, and [when] you look at him today, I think there’s a hell of a difference. That’s credit to him – to the player he was and the player he is today, plus credit for his whole season, where he has worked very hard. I think there’s still room for improvement for him.”
With Arsenal entering the home stretch of the campaign as the only English club remaining in the Champions League, FA Cup and in contention for the top four, Wenger has a plethora of attacking options who will be needed in the coming months. Rather surprisingly, it is his unheralded Gallic import who is irreplaceable in his plans. Olivier Giroud has come a long way and, oddly, there’s still more to come.