Ah, Olivier. You scored so much and so well for Montpelier that you convinced us that you’d replace Van Persie himself. Well, we convinced ourselves of that and insisted that you live up to the billing. In retrospect, a bit unfair of us, I suppose. However, even by a more-objective standard, as a stand-alone, I think you’d have to agree it’s been a bit of a let-down to this point. The transition from Ligue 1 to the Prem can be a tricky one, and nine goals is a decent number, but I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds when I say we expected a little more, if not in actual goals but in overall play.
Okay. End of fake “letter to the player” format.
Now, firstly, the goals. Last year, Giroud scored 21 goals in 36 Ligue 1 matches. Not bad. However, he’s only scored nine in 27 Prem games, a drop of nearly half–from 0.58 goals per game to 0.33. What’s more, four of these goals have been what I’ve called “superfluous”–extra goals that do nothing to change the outcome of a game: the 5th and 6th goals of the 7-3 win over Newcastle, and the 2nd and 5th goals in the 5-1 win over West Ham. Even if I’m being a little harsh in counting that 2nd goal as superfluous, the larger point remains: not enough goals, and not enough game-changing goals. Teams need strikers who are more than just prolific; they need strikers with an exquisite sense of timing. By comparison, most of Gareth Bale’s goals for Spurs, for example, have been vital to securing draws, if not actual wins. I do believe that Giroud will adjust the the Prem in time, and I respect that the adjustment has been all the more difficult given the boots he was signed to fill, but the ugly truth is that he just hasn’t been good enough for the role we need him to play.
However, my concern arises from issues beyond his stats–my concern arises from how his presence changes how we play. While it’s true that critics rightly take Arsenal to task for trying to pass the ball into goal, this doesn’t mean that we should accommodate them. I worry that Giroud’s reputation has deceived us into doing just this, not that this is Giroud’s fault. When he came on, we were told of his size and physical style and strength in the air. While I do believe that these elements are a part of his repertoire (I can’t call it an actual arsenal yet because it’s just not a dangerous-enough tool set to earn that term), we haven’t seen it yet even as we abuse its availability. All too often, and especially when we fall behind, we end up hoofing the ball forward and hoping for Giroud to do something with it. Never mind the difficulty of placing such a pass or the aesthetic considerations. It’s asking a lot of a striker to bring a ball down and turn to shoot. Giroud hasn’t shown that he’s capable of doing this, at least not as often as we ask him to. Second balls present a similar issue–as nice as it would be to see him trap the ball and lay it off to Podolski or Walcott, it just hasn’t happened. The man has two assists in the Prem. Yes, he would have more but for some poor finishes, but the deft little flicks that have become his only real calling-card are becoming a little too-too, as if he’s afraid to shoot and is playing hot potato instead of soccer. The bigger issue, though, is how it distorts our attack. Instead of dominating possession in order to generate high-percentage shots, we end up settling for too much of the hoof-and-hope, with all too little to show for it.
Giroud seems all too aware of the problems he’s having so far, as each fluffed shot and grimace suggest. He’s feeling the pressure, much as he did at the season’s beginning, to produce. He went so far as to step in front of a teammate to take a ball out of the air, as he did to Walcott towards the end of the Spurs game–he literally stepped in front of Theo, who seemed surprised and then upset as he watched Giroud attempt to twist around to launch a half-volley that sailed harmlessly into the crowd. A goal would have been wondrous, but I might have settled at this point for a shot that was simply on-frame.
Looking down the road, I still believe that Giroud has a role to play for us–his on-field relationship and link-up play with both Walcott and Podolski has shown moments of potential and has produced some great goals of the sort that, in time, would probably become more frequent and more timely. If Giroud can regain some kind of form over the remainder of the season, I might even go so far as to say that I wouldn’t be upset if we don’t make dramatic moves for another striker come summer (as long we do make moves elsewhere). I’m not placing responsibility for a top-four finish solely on him, but we need some goals in coming weeks, or other options will have to be pursued. Bonne chance, Olivier, bonne chance.