Can Arsenal win the Premier League with Olivier Giroud as their main centre forward? It’s been a question from pundits and fans alike for the best part of a year, with mixed responses and the general consensus seems to change each month. Of course, in reality, the answer is quite simple. Even if you think Giroud is below title standard, teams can win things without every role in the side being absolutely top draw. Bayern Munich won a treble with Mario Mandzukic as their number 9, a level below the continents elite. Their prowess in defence and midfield and the influence of attacking midfielders stroke secondary strikers in the form of Ribery, Robben and Müller was more than enough to be the best side in the world. In this Premier League season, which could see a champion with 10 points less than the average title winner over the last decade, it’s perfectly possible. But it relies on other players helping to share the goalscoring load, and the striker has a certain role in helping them to achieve that.
I have a lot of time for Giroud. He’s had to cope with as many doubters as anyone over the last four years and he’s still here, still contributing. It says a lot for his mental toughness. His good fitness record has made him the most reliable of Arsenal’s forward options since he’s been at the club and he’s performed admirably overall. He’s also improved throughout his time at the club and is having arguably his best season at Arsenal. 0.7 goals per 90 minutes in the Premier League and Champions League have shown that critics of his finishing are cliches more drawn from stereotype than any hard evidence. The arguments that he was a flat track bully, perfectly legitimate during his first two seasons at Arsenal, have been squashed since, with Giroud providing crucial points this season against Bayern Munich, Man City, Liverpool and most emphatically, netting a hat-trick on Arsenal’s European judgement day in Athens. His contributions can’t be denied, and although he’s been much maligned throughout, will likely be viewed more fondly through the eyes of history.
At times, such as against Liverpool, he has almost carried Arsenal this year. Theo Walcott has arguably been the biggest disappointment of the season so far, his finishing poor when in the centre forward role and his shortcomings as a dribbler shown in full light in a string of horrific performances when deployed on the left over the last month. Joel Campbell has shown great team qualities since getting game time in October, most notably his combination play and defensive work rate, meaning he has rarely let the team down. But he also lacks some of the individual qualities needed to be a star forward at a club like Arsenal. Even Alexis Sanchez has been patchy this season, and as we reach February has still only scored in three Premier League games. Giroud has proven the only reliable goalscorer in the squad, and his ability from aspects of play such as set pieces have been a difference maker in crucial wins against the likes of Swansea, Newcastle and the mighty Bayern, none of which were looking like being wins.
And yet, if Arsenal are to reignite their title challenge and win the league, it will probably have to come without Giroud starting most of the time. This season, their best football has, by and large, come with Giroud not in the starting lineup. The five goals away at Leicester, the early three goal demolition of Man United, the nine big chances at home to Stoke, the record shots on target against Pep Guardiola in Europe, all with Theo Walcott starting up front. Walcott has had a poor season while Giroud has had a good one, but it’s not really about them, it’s about the players around them and the team dynamic.
Giroud is at his best operating as a wall to bounce off, surrounded by fast, direct players. Aaron Ramsey in central midfield is one, his ability to get into dangerous areas in the box and the direct nature of his movement naturally compliment Giroud’s attempts to hold the ball up and play flick ons and through balls to people running behind him. Walcott on the right is another. Wide players who cross are also obvious compliments to Giroud who excels not only with this head but also with runs to the near post to get on the end of cut backs.
But neither of Alexis or Campbell, the wide players who started at home to Southampton, are like that. They prefer to get in between the lines, combine with Özil and play through balls where possible. They’re not players who specialise in off ball movement and running in behind. Naturally, they excel more when a fast direct striker like Walcott plays centrally, as it allows them more space to attack the defence from deep and gives them more through ball options. When Giroud is the number nine, who also tries to play in front of the defence and compliment players running behind, it’s a significant clash of styles. We’ve seen Campbell’s liking for the through ball into the right channel, but with Walcott mostly playing on the other side or not playing at all, he’s been slightly devoid of options. Against Liverpool he found Ramsey for the first equaliser, against Sunderland in the cup he played Bellerin in behind, but only once did he play Giroud through, away at Stoke.
The biggest sufferer of Giroud at number 9, however, is Alexis. When Giroud is up front it allows the opposition defence to push higher up, and limits the space between the midfield and defence, where Alexis likes to get on the ball and Olivier’s movement doesn’t cause the type of havoc a faster player would, which makes it harder for Alexis to beat players one on one. His goal rate at Arsenal has traditionally plummeted when Giroud is on the pitch. The two have played 2757 minutes together in the league and Europe, which equals roughly 30 full games -a decent sample – and Alexis has scored just nine goals, two of which were from free kicks. When Giroud has not been on the pitch, in a similar amount of game time, Alexis’ goal rate is more than double at 0.67 goals per 90 minutes. It means that Alexis is less of a goalscorer, which puts extra onus on his creative abilities. But they aren’t as effective with Giroud either as he is regularly looking for through ball opportunities, and while on the left almost never looks to go outside and get to the byline. Most of Alexis’ through balls against Southampton were supplied to Özil rather than Giroud, and while Özil’s movement is good, he’s hardly what you would call a natural poacher.
When choosing whether to try and get the best out of Giroud or Alexis, there will only be one winner. As good as Giroud has been at times this season, he simply doesn’t have the talent of Alexis; the ability to reach the superstar level we’ve seen the Chilean reach at times when playing behind Walcott and Welbeck. A team in the position Arsenal are, chasing the league from a period where they haven’t been playing that well, a gamble sometimes has to be taken. There’s only so far a team can go when the parts don’t fit, and while a system with Walcott has the potential to fail more spectacularly, we know that it can reach a level not seen with the current setup.
A switch back to the late summer and early autumn plan doesn’t spell an end to Giroud’s contribution though. Without a doubt there will be games that are still better suited to him. More importantly, over the last year he’s shown to be one of the most effective subs around. The switch from Walcott to Giroud provides a completely new challenge for defences, his physical qualities standout even more against tired centre backs, his touch is sharper when fresher and his ability to help close out games by offering an outlet and defending set pieces is invaluable. There’ll never be a game state where he’s not needed off the bench in some capacity.
Giroud has had a fantastic season and done little wrong. But Arsenal need to gamble in an attempt to reach that next level you associate with title sides, with more dynamic and exciting football. Hopefully, rather than being an occasional hero, occasional scapegoat who Arsenal fans unleash their frustrations on for coming up short as the main nine, Giroud as a super sub can be the folk hero he’s always threatened to be, who’s viewed as the potential saviour in a streak of games that help Arsenal win the Premier League once again.
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