Stuck In The Middle Giroud
It has not been the easiest of starts to 2014 for Olivier Giroud. Quite aside from all the apparent ‘goings on’ off the pitch, before Saturday he had managed just two goals and a single assist in his six starts since the turn of the year. In that time, he drew a great deal of criticism for his misses and ineffective play against Manchester United, and some for the shambles at Liverpool. Add to that conveniently-timed ‘rests’ in the month’s two biggest games, the FA Cup match against Liverpool and the home leg with Bayern Munich, wherein his replacement Yaya Sanogo was impressive, it has not been ideal for him.
There are a few things that can be extrapolated from his much-improved performance against Sunderland. First, how useful a long overdue rest may have been for him. The only Premier League games he has not started all season have been the home wins against Hull in early December and Cardiff on New Year’s Day. Arsène Wenger’s distrust in Nicklas Bendtner and Sanogo’s August-to-January disappearance for conditioning had again left him as the only viable centre forward option in the manager’s eyes. After an extended period of highly questionable form, he returns from his week off (so to speak) with two goals and an assist. Correlation? Sure. Causation? Who knows.
A more cynical view that a poor Sunderland team with more than half an eye on the League Cup final next week gave him all the time and space he needed to play well. Which, as itself, is somewhat unfair, even if it does have some elements of truth to it. Giroud, for whatever reason, did have more of the energy and clever play that was so prevalent in the early season, and disappeared somewhat after early January.
A lot of the defence for Mesut Özil’s issues in the same time period has been the absences of Aaron Ramsey and more importantly Theo Walcott. And then there are Lukas Podolski and Nicklas Bendtner are the only real penalty box specialists in the first team squad. With that making being creative so much more difficult, it is only fair that Özil has some struggles. Subbing in Podolski means a player who spends 80% of the game giving very little. He does not stretch teams like Walcott and Ramsey, usually offers very little outside the final third and being easy to close out a lot of the time, often little in it.
This all has telling effects on Giroud. With any of Walcott, Ramsey or Podolski, Giroud can settle into a role where goalscoring is a secondary part of his job. With an extra penalty box presence, Giroud has less space to cover in the 18-yard box and hence has more freedom to make much better runs, or to dwell happily on its periphery. The run that earned him much praise in the early season was his continued darts towards the near post; his near post finishing being a strong suit it reaped rewards for either him or other on-running players.
This is Giroud at his strongest. Arsenal’s best team is setup for him to them to bring the best from him and he from them. Walcott, Ramsey and maybe even Santi Cazorla are all more relied upon avenues for goals, and he enables that. The former two rely on Giroud’s game for their own ends, and it works. Without one, the other steps up, as we saw while one of either was out. Without both, Arsenal need Giroud to be something he is not – a complete centre forward who is more capable in the box than he is.
With all due respect, he is too limited to adapt. He does not have the pace to make runs in behind the defensive line, nor the finishing ability to be the team’s main goals man. On top of that, Ramsey and Walcott are the players best at reading his knock-downs and lay-offs. With them not there, there is no one close enough to him to make him especially effective. His technical ability and strength in simply holding onto the ball until runners arrive closer to him just aren’t good enough to circumvent that problem while those two aren’t there.
One game worth referencing is the 6-3 loss at Manchester City. Giroud himself missed a solid handful of very good chances, but that itself was the crucial difference from so many of Giroud’s other matches against strong opposition – he got the chances, and both Walcott and Ramsey were there. In almost* all the other bigger occasions, he has only had the one (if that). The fact that he missed the vast majority of them is a side-issue at this particular juncture because it shows that Giroud is a much more potent threat with runners beyond him.
*(The 0-0 with Chelsea stands as something of an exception given just how strong that 10-man defensive unit was. Arsenal will meet plenty of parked buses, but few so tall and with such heavily reinforced metal. And even then, Giroud did miss a great chance.)
From there, it becomes an issue that his finishing is so weak, especially in big games when being clinical is so much more important. And however much those two improve his movement, it is still far from being ‘top level’. The struggle for Wenger is finding a player who acts as similarly good foil for the rest of the full team while also having the ability to be both a back-to-goal playing altruist and a more selfish behind-the-line goalscorer, so Arsenal’s reliance on the ever-aforementioned two is not as pronounced.
Stick it in!
If he were a better finisher, it would be far easier to overlook the flaws, because he would have been able to bail Arsenal out on a fair few occasions. But as Podolski proves, it’s far better to be, and indeed to have a decent finisher with excellent movement off the ball than a great finisher with average movement. Giroud is an average finisher with good movement as long as provisions are made for him. Without those provisions, he’s an average finisher with poor movement, and whose strengths go to waste and weaknesses are accentuated.
Giroud is a decent player in what, for him, is an unhelpful system at the moment. Against lesser teams it is not as problematic (but still anything from ‘a little bit’ to ‘quite’) because they have more time on the ball in midfield, and the midfield itself can sit a bit closer to him. Against Sunderland on Saturday, part of why he gave more was because the midfield was able to stay so much nearer to him than they would against a side that offered, well, anything in their own midfield. The funny thing is, that’s true (though certainly not to the same extent) for quite a lot of the league’s teams outside the top eight or so.
In bigger games, Arsenal have really struggled to create with the set of available players. And there’s very much an argument that the more mobile and technically able centre forwards in the squad – especially Bendtner, who has the most pronounced talent for runs in the box – are far more useful to the side in bigger games than Giroud is right now. It also helps that neither of them seem to lose his mind against stronger sides, too. But maybe – just maybe – a better rested and rotated Giroud will start finishing those big game chances…
One thing is difficult to argue with: Giroud can be very useful, but as things are, he needs more help than this squad can really give him, and they seem to need more than they will get from him.