(N.B This was written before Oliver Giroud’s injury)
Us Arsenal fans, are spoilt. That’s right, spoilt rotten. For us the beautiful game is not the misnomer that it is for some. It’s fast, explosive and skilfull. It’s Dennis Bergkamp against Leicester. It’s Thierry Henry. It’s commentators clapping as Robert Pires lobs the best goalkeeper in Premier League history. It’s even, to a certain vintage, Liam Brady against Spurs. Charlie George lying on his back. And Michael Thomas break dancing on his face. For want of a better word, it is beautiful.
And so who can blame them? Who can blame those who look at Olivier Giroud, a slow, oft-lumbering archetypal target-man and think “not good enough”. Those who think, “not an Arsenal player” when he tries in vain to latch onto a through ball. A through ball that would have been ravenously gobbled up by his predecessors. Wright. Check. Anelka. Check. Henry. Check Check Check.
When we purvey the footballing scene, the 2014 footballing scene of matching haircuts, wall-to-wall tattoos and ice buckets on Instagram, we see things we like. Things which are faster. Better at scoring goals. More ‘strikery’. Luis Suarez, for example. The fulcrum of quick, exciting and very, very good goal-scorers. Loic Remy, as well, to a lesser extent. Small, fast and pretty good at scoring. That is what strikers should do. Run fast and score goals. They’re strikers.
And with this mindset, Olivier Giroud is beaten to a pulp. But Olivier Giroud is good. In fact, he is very good. And here is why. The notion of a striker has changed. Goals in a striker are not overrated, but they are certainly overstated. Spain won Euro 2012 playing without a ‘striker’ for the majority of the tournament. Labelling positions can therefore be at best arbitrary and at worst restricting.
Now, Olivier Giroud is, as some might put it, a ‘striker’. However the role Arsene Wenger sees for him is not that of a classic striker, or number 9. Giroud’s role is predominantly assistive. He acts as a focal point for an Arsenal side that purposefully lacks any rigid structure to such an extent that neatly drawing the line-up in a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 is pointless. The midfield constantly rotate, orbiting around Giroud. Around him and, ideally, beyond him. Giroud provided 12 assists in each of his last two seasons. Last season, he got more league assists than many ‘strikers’ regularly lauded for helping their teammates: Dzeko; Sturridge; Lukaku; Hazard.
The reason why Arsene Wenger likes Giroud so much is because Arsenal have more goalscoring midfielders than any other team in the league, and Giroud has the ability to cater to their individual needs. Giroud didn’t suddenly get a lot worse during the second half of last season. Injuries to Ramsey and Walcott almost entirely negated his role in the side. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that on top of a projected 20 goals from Giroud this season (based on a return of 22 and 17 in the last two seasons), Ramsey will sore 15, Sanchez and Walcott will score 20 each, whilst 15 could come from a combination of Cazorla, Podolski, Wilshere, Ozil and Rosicky (not to mention, perhaps wisely, Campbell and Sanogo) and then another 10 from defenders, penalties et al. That would hypothetically take Arsenal to the 100+ goal mark you need to win a title.
Here’s my point. Olivier Giroud is a striker, yes. But Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey are very often found in the area of a pitch usually designated for strikers. Just because Giroud is drawn in the middle of the 3 front men on a Guardian or Sky Sports team sheet doesn’t mean he is Arsenal’s only striker. It also doesn’t mean that it is either him, Sanogo, someone new or bust. We are so quick to look for alternatives spouted out by the never-ending transfer rumour mill that we lose sight of the squad’s existing qualities.
Giroud is technically very good. His goal at home to West Ham last season would have given anyone else legendary status. His hit against City this season the same. His first touch, particularly from aerial balls, is one of the best in the league and he is extremely strong, regularly holding off defenders at ease. Defensively too, the position he takes up at the near post from corners is excellent, and Palace’s goal in his absence last weekend exemplified that importance. He may not be fast, or incredible at finishing. He may find it hard to score against the top 3 or 4 teams in the league. But if he can supply others around him to do exactly that, these supposed deficiencies are an irrelevance. It is just like complaining that Ozil doesn’t score 25 goals a season. The fact that he stands in a different area of the pitch doesn’t make Giroud more culpable. His role in the team isn’t to do that.
To end, two passages from Mike Calvin’s critically acclaimed book The Nowhere Men– a book about football scouting and performance analysis. The first refers to Shane Battier, ‘the No Stats All Star of the NBA. They call him Lego, because when he is on the court the pieces start to fit together’. Calvin continues:
“He needs acute peripheral vision, anticipation and intestinal fortitude, to take charge from the best offensive players in an aggressive relentless sport…The mystique of the process is enhanced by the impact Battier has on his teammates, who suddenly become more productive….Anyone who crystallises such magic in football, and finds the equivalent of what basketball identifies as a ‘glue guy’, would make a Moneyball-style impression.”
And this is a quote from Brentford owner and Oxford graduate Matthew Benham, an advocate of a ‘plus-minus’ system of player evaluation:
“If I am looking at a striker I absolutely do not care about his goalscoring record. For me, the only thing that is interesting is how the team do collectively, offensively and defensively, within the context of an individual performance….I know people’s brains will fuse. They will tell us we are talking absolute bollocks.”
That is for you to judge. But this concept is, I think, a more refreshing way of looking at a footballer’s impact. Part of the collective in a team and never as an individual in an isolated position. In Olivier Giroud, Arsenal have found their ‘glue-guy’. And when he sticks, he won’t let go.