Monday, May 20, 2024

Tactics Column: The Olivier Giroud dependency

In the end, it wasn’t really a tackle that Olivier Giroud made which earned him a red card. It was over the top only ever so slightly, and when Giroud saw the colour of the card he was incredulous. But in an age where digital motion capture means every 50-50 tackle – if timed a teeny bit late – is accentuated, he had to go. Giroud, however, slipped as he went for the ball and wasn’t even attempting a tackle; instead, he tried to perform a drag-back away from the defender as the ball squirmed loose.

Up to that point, however, it wasn’t really Giroud’s day. His passing was poor and at half-time his passing accuracy was at 33%; that improved to 55% by the final whistle. But there lies the Gordian Knot – or the Giroud Knot, as Arse2Mouse brilliantly puts it – that Arsenal have themselves tangled in.

Olivier Giroud is Arsenal’s only recognised striker who, not only has a heavy burden to carry, is still learning himself. It’s an incredible situation for the club to be in and a curious gamble by Arsene Wenger to make. Of course, he had the opportunity to add in the winter when Demba Ba became available but opted not to as he said both he and Giroud are similar type of strikers and Giroud would soon get to that level. Why though, did Wenger persist then with a striker who, in his own words, is still developing?

On the one hand, perhaps he thought Giroud may make the same strides he did to earn his move to The Gunners as he was still playing in the French second division two years prior to joining, and spent one year at title-winning Montpellier. But it might be because of the type of striker that Giroud is that made Wenger persist solely with him.

Because Giroud can do everything. He’s technical (for a big man), can hold the ball up, and bring others into play, runs the channels well and works very hard. That means it carries little risk for a team that is still adapting to each other mainly. As such, acts Giroud as bit of a buffer, lessening the impact of this adjustment period by taking hits for the team as they strive to find better balance and understanding. By the same token, that’s probably why Wenger is willing to overlook some of his deficiencies – namely his goalscoring, which fans are understandably less forgiving of (only three goals away from home; two of those outside London but in the Champions League) – if Giroud makes the team play.

However, despite saying that, I’ve not seen a player come under such heavy scrutiny from Wenger in all his time in charge, as I have with Olivier Giroud. After Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Montpellier in the Champions League, Wenger said that “Technically it was not one of his [Giroud’s] best games … sometimes when he doesn’t get the ball enough he wants to come deep. That is not his game. And in the recent 3-1 comeback against Nowrich City, he said “I think he had a very, very average first half,” before adding “and a very, very positive and influential second half.”

We saw in the 1-0 win over Fulham, the importance Giroud has on the way the team plays – sometimes to the detriment of the team. Because when Fulham went down to ten-men early in the game, instead working the ball and making use of the man advantage, Arsenal continually looked to play it through Giroud. But continually the ball bounced off him and trickled into nowhere, resulting in a hugely frustrating performance.

Arsenal tried to play the game through the midfield, using Olivier Giroud as a pivot. However, he had a hugely frustrating game as passes failed to stick.

Yet, this is the way Arsenal have mainly played this season, using Giroud as an inverted pivot to bump passes off and play around his lay-offs. After that Montpellier win, in which Giroud received as much censure as he did praise, Wenger said that “Giroud is good when he plays completely on the offside line. When he is a target man and uses his link-up play, he is fantastic because he can win in the air; he can score with his feet and can be a complete striker.” Of course, the success Arsenal have had with this tactic has often been predicated on having direct players running behind him – and similarly those players who can cross it low towards him after a quick give-and-go.

Arsenal have gone seven games unbeaten in all competitions and as such, it’s a bit finicky to criticise a player who has been a constant in the run, but of course, that’s because there’s been no other option. His sending-off, providing Arsenal aren’t successful with his appeal – and that would surely mean his season is at an end (and the signs are that it will be overturned) – gives a chance for the other “candidates” for the striking role to stake their claim.

Fans hope it’s Lukas Podolski (although Gervinho looks more likely), who Wenger has taken out of the firing line in recent weeks and has worked extra hard to get him up to speed with the role. It could be an inspired move, and his age shouldn’t be much of a worry because leaves a bit of spontaneity in him when he makes the switch to number 9 that Wenger loves. Although, if it happens against Manchester United on Sunday, it will be a long time coming because it was he, alongside Giroud, that was supposed to share the burden on playing up front. But it’s a sign of how important Giroud is that Arsenal have appealed his one-match ban and how risk-averse Wenger has approached this season.

Had Arsenal not suffered that dip a third-way through this season, perhaps Wenger would have used Podolski as a centre-forward without fearing the consequences of dropped points. If he goes with Podolski in the weekend, it will go against the grain of his decisions in the season so far. And is it a risk worth taking with Champions League football the prize at stake?

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