Friday, August 19, 2022

Tactics Column: Olivier Giroud finds his niche

The movements were so familiar, and the touch and the finish exquisite. Olivier Giroud’s fine double against Brighton and Hove Albion would have done little to avoid comparisons with that man, but in a strange way, that’s what it’s done. Finally it seems, people have come to realise that Giroud is his own player, capable of moments of adroitness to go with his more obvious target man-like qualities.

Indeed, you can view Giroud’s season in three stages: When he signed, he was an unknown quantity, taking 8 matches to open his account and in a way, that goal in the 3-1 win over West Ham United in October marked a landmark moment, finally confirming himself as an Arsenal striker. In between, Giroud’s form was more introspective. He scored two goals against Fulham and delivered a brilliant assist for Lukas Podolski in the Champions League but he never quite found his niche in the team. At heart, he was used as a target-man but he constantly muddied that description by dropping deep in search of possession and sometimes, his touch let him down. In 17 games after scoring his first goal, Giroud scored just six times in that period. In this stage, the most important thing was to convince his team and his fans of his worth.

Finally, it looks like Giroud might have done that, dealing in doubles, firstly against Newcastle off the bench and then against West Ham – which makes for a neat symmetry of his Arsenal career so far, having opened his account against the same team. His brace against Brighton on Sunday might now be the impetus to convince everyone else of his worth: the final stage of his season.

It’s true that the standard of defending here was poorer than what Giroud normally faces, but it marks a steady progression and the signs continue to be promising. A bit like a videogame character, he’s added a few weapons to his armoury along the way too. His touch is becoming smoother, like Chantilly lace, killing balls when they might have otherwise squirmed away to oppositions’ feet. His finishing requires the most work but his two goals at Brighton were of the highest quality. Firstly, Giroud capped off a speedy counter-attack with a well-placed curler from the edge of the box and then deliciously took down a pass by Abou Diaby on the stretch and fired in. Flicks and neat one-twos are bountiful too although this sometimes borders on the outrageous, attempting trigonometric through-passes even Pythagoras wouldn’t try.

Arsène Wenger’s words do Olivier Giroud a bit of disservice, likening him to a throwback striker of a seemingly past era but that highlights the rawness of his game. It too, displays the different quality he brings to the side which allows them to break from their usual passing game.

Arguably, Arsenal haven’t played to his strengths well enough. Or rather, he hasn’t. Wenger wants Giroud to play more on the “offside-line”, to use his runs more like he did for his second goal against Brighton as he drifted off his marker. His play can be wildly inaccurate at times too, although recently, his link-up play has improved and his team-mates have benefited by making more penetrative burst from midfield, especially with Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott both having had their games adjusted to run into the space quickly. Indeed, Kieran Gibbs, Lukas Podolski and Wilshere are such examples where Giroud’s combination play has directly resulted in goals recently.

It’s interesting that Wenger highlights Olivier Giroud’s battling qualities because it’s often seen as something the team lack. From a stylistic point of view, however, it just doesn’t seem to fit. “He [Giroud] started a bit sloppy and became stronger and stronger,” said Wenger after the 3-2 Brighton victory. “He finished the second half [in a] very, very good [way]. When he gets into the fighting mode it is difficult to handle him. This guy is tall, strong and quicker than people think he is. He has good finishing as well.” But while Liverpool might have tossed aside Andy Carroll ruthlessly like a used condom, passing sides do really love a target-man. Suddenly Giroud makes a lot of sense: in a side that passes the ball accurately in the final third and a striker who wins most of his duels, Giroud could work really, really well.

Brighton perfect practice for Liverpool

The way Brighton attacked deserves a mention and it seems a matter of when, not if, Gus Poyet’s side become a Premier League team. With new signing Leonardo Ulloa – who caused Per Mertesacker lots of problems – they have the striker that can fire them into the top division. But it’s the way they played which is most pertinent to this column because it is one they will face this Wednesday against Liverpool.

Brighton, like Liverpool and Swansea, stretch the pitch wide, commit full-backs forward and constantly rotate midfielders on the ball so it is hard to mark. Arsenal were outplayed for much of the 3-2 win and took the lead against the run of play while only really looked like having the ascendancy when Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott entered the fray. Granted Arsenal made a lot of changes and at the moment players like Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta exemplify their way of playing so much so that it was always going to be a bit of a struggle against Brighton.

Arsenal have had trouble against teams that try to out-Arsenal them although the most recent win, a 1-0 in the FA Cup versus Swansea, showed signs they have finally realised how to play against the style. Truth be told, Liverpool have been a poorer imitation of the way Brendan Rodgers envisaged playing and developed at Swansea despite having “better” players and Arsenal, if they decide to press Liverpool’s midfielders tightly, should fancy their chances. They certainly got the perfect dress-rehearsal against Brighton.

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