Thursday, April 25, 2024

Tactics column: Not long before Giroud breaks his goalscoring duck

Olivier Giroud’s contribution this season might be best characterised by what he hasn’t done: namely failing to finish the good chances that were presented to him in each of the three opening matches. However, his best contribution this season probably hasn’t gone noticed because he didn’t have to touch the ball.

As Santi Cazorla picked up the ball in the build-up to Lukas Podolski’s goal against Liverpool, he only had Olivier Giroud in front of him. Giroud, though, was running into a cul-de-sac and Podolski had not caught up yet. Cazorla needed something to delay him – a distraction – before he eventually slipped the ball in for Podolski. He got that split-second in Giroud who, having seen that his route towards the centre had been blocked, checked his run and darted towards the right. That move was enough to momentarily commit Daniel Agger and open up space for Podolski on the other side – because Martin Skrtel had to come narrow – and as quick as a flash, the ball was in the back of the net.

Figure 1 - As Cazorla advances with the ball, Giroud darts right, forcing Skrtel and Agger to move sideways as well. However, Giroud's run is only a diversion for Podolski to run clear on goal.

Giroud might have preferred to be at the end of the pass but if goalscoring so far has eluded him, the example above highlights the one part of his game in which he has managed to replicate Robin van Persie: his movement. It surely won’t be long until he buries one Cazorla’s through-passes.

Indeed, Cazorla and Giroud have combined only 17 times in the Premier League (by comparison, Podolski and Cazorla have found each other an impressive 53 times) but there are nevertheless, signs of a burgeoning partnership. Against Liverpool, Cazorla tried to find Giroud a couple of times with balls over the top, particularly on the break while against Sunderland, fed him a wonderful reverse pass which Giroud skewed wide. He was presented a carbon copy of that chance at Anfield, this time created by Abou Diaby and on his favoured left-foot, which he also dragged disappointingly past the post.

Cazorla and Giroud have never been too far away from each other, as indicated by the average touch diagram below versus Liverpool. They might not have found each other much but their positioning is important because it tells you a lot about Arsenal’s shape this season. Santi Cazorla plays as the second striker and together, he and Giroud lead the press. When they don’t have possession, however, the team drops into a 4-4-1-1 system and Cazorla is given the freedom to pick up the ball on the break if Arsenal do win it back.

Figure 2 - Arsenal average player positions v Liverpool

In open play, Giroud’s impact has purely been limited to acting as a decoy but that’s one he might have to accept in the meantime. That shouldn’t be seen as too much of a problem; the top two European sides, Barcelona and Real Madrid, prefer to have atypical number nines leading the attack, Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema, and of the former, South American football writer Tim Vickery, describes as the “ultimate decoy”. And just as Spain dumped the goalscorer in the short-term to win the European Championships in favour of a holistic style, Arsenal might have accept that too as team-mates try to understand each other better.

At Montpellier, Giroud wasn’t noted for being just a goalscorer. He ended the season sharing the Golden Boot with Paris Saint-Germain winger, Nenê , with 21 goals but it’s his hold-up and general link-up play outside the box which impressed scouts just as much. The physicality of the Premier League means it’s been a difficult adjustment and it’s notable that Arsene Wenger initially saw Giroud playing mainly in a 4-4-2, highlighting the development of his approach play.

“He is a player who developed late,” said Wenger. “And I feel he can integrate in the way we play football and add something to the way we play because he is good in the air. He has a good, strong body and I feel he has qualities that are needed in our squad. Hopefully he can show that.”

But even then, Giroud is not your typical target-man. Of the goals he scored for Montpellier in Ligue 1 last season, only one came with his head. He’s intelligent enough to realise that he must remain patient for his first goal – and hopes fans understand that too. And what perfect way to break your duck than against Southampton on Saturday – opponents against whom both Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry scored their first Arsenal goals.

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