The sight of Olivier Giroud paying crumpled on the turf, his face wrinkled with pain, fingers snapping in anguish, is not uncommon. Despite his fits of pained pique, Giroud is generally a physically robust player, rarely injured and his one sustained injury during his Arsenal career has seen a miraculously early recovery. So miraculous in fact that nobody thought it worthwhile to ink his name onto Arsenal’s squad sheet for the Champions League group stage.
So when Giroud collapsed in agony at Goodison Park in August, it’s fair to say most of us still celebrating his stoppage time equaliser scored moments earlier, were not unduly concerned. However that crack of the Frenchman’s ankle bone represented a fork in the road for both Arsenal’s season and, particularly, Arsene’s squad planning. I don’t think it’s enormously controversial to suggest that Arsenal would not have signed Danny Welbeck had it not been for Giroud’s injury. It probably wouldn’t have happened had Welbeck not been training with England at London Colney on deadline day.
That of course begs the question as to what on earth Arsenal would have done had Giroud fallen to earth a fortnight later, with the transfer window sealed until January. But I think we’ve enough genuine injury angst to be contending with without inventing hypothetical crises. Had Giroud not been injured at Everton, I think Arsenal would have spent deadline day in pursuit of a centre half. Whilst I think Welbeck was not a signing foisted upon Wenger by the club hierarchy as some have posited, my impression since the van Persie sale is that Wenger has been waiting for a world class centre forward to complete his attack.
Giroud’s injury meant that Wenger no longer had the liberty of patience and had to act. Welbeck is, like Giroud, a very good centre forward. Whether he represents the very top class striker Wenger has lusted after is open to debate. The procurement of Alexis Sanchez for his forward line, albeit not as the central striker, may have contributed to the manager’s calculations in “settling on” Danny Welbeck, at the risk of sounding overly lukewarm.
Welbeck was effusive about the opportunity to play in his preferred central role at Arsenal, revealing that, “I’ve envisaged myself playing in this team before. I believe that with the manager’s style of play and with the magnificent players in midfield slotting balls through, I can run on to the end of those balls and put them away. I’d like to bring pace and power to the game. At Arsenal, we’re not short of combination football and I like to join in on that and get in behind defenders and try to get shots on goal.”
With Giroud and Walcott side lined, Welbeck had a good few months ahead of him to acclimatise, secure a run in the centre forward position and make himself an undisputed first choice. Three months on, Giroud and Walcott are returning to fitness, Alexis has confirmed himself as a bona fide star of Arsenal’s attack. So it seems like the first bookmark in his Arsenal career. Has he done enough to suggest he ought to be the go to central striker? I think if we are honest, the jury is still out. Welbeck has had some very good games – Aston Villa and Galatasaray for example – and some indifferent ones too.
Yet that’s probably true of Arsenal’s attack in general and it would be unfair to hold Welbeck responsible. ArsenalColumn wrote a piece suggesting that suspicions abound over Welbeck’s ruthlessness. I have a United supporting friend that referred to him as ‘Danny Welbeige.’ Another United fan I am acquainted with nicknamed him “unlucky.” The sobriquet was a tribute to the regularity with which he would provide everything bar the finish, culminating in a murmured chorus of “unlucky Welbeck” across the Stretford End.
Welbeck has had to adjust to a new team for the first time in his career, in front of a midfield that has been more malleable than silly putty. Nobody would pretend that he was in good form (by his own exalted standards) prior to injury, but the loss of £42m playmaker Mesut Özil has been underplayed too. Özil and Welbeck showed nascent signs of a terrific partnership at Villa Park in September which has not been allowed to flourish. I imagine it’s more difficult to form a partnership with Alexis Sanchez because he is such an instinctive footballer.
Technically, Welbeck is a satisfying hybrid between Giroud and Walcott. He shares their attributes for strength and hold up play (in the case of Giroud), and mobility and pace (in the case of Walcott) – even if he doesn’t excel in either area in the manner that Giroud and Walcott manage. In theory, his inclusion reduces the dependency on the Giroud and Walcott partnership which is well established. Walcott may start from the right, but has effectively played in a striker partnership given his license to drift into the middle.
One of Welbeck’s key strengths is his work in the channels and this is a very helpful attribute for Arsenal. It creates space for provocateurs such as Alexis and runners like Ramsey. But Giroud’s work as a pivot cracks the same nut with a different utensil. Evidence so far suggests that Ramsey certainly prefers playing with Giroud (he hasn’t scored since the Frenchman’s injury). Yet Welbeck and Giroud have potentially made some bad career moves this season from a strictly personal angle.
Welbeck’s run and assist for Alexis at Swansea came via a clever run in the channel. Against both Swansea and Manchester United, Wenger swapped Alexis and Welbeck over between the wide left and centre forward positions. Welbeck has been gently reacquainted with the wide forward position he became so unsatisfied with at United. It could become a question as to whether it’s Giroud or Walcott that Welbeck is competing with for a starting spot. Meanwhile, all three of Olivier Giroud’s goals this season (if you include the Community Shield) have come from the substitute’s bench, which lends traction to the idea that he fits rather snugly behind the “break glass in case of emergency” screen. No striker truly lusts after the ‘supersub’ role.
There is a question mark as to whether Welbeck and Giroud could play together an auxiliary front two but I can’t envisage that. For a start, neither is especially lethal. Playing a 4-4-2 with a Welbeck Giroud pairing would necessitate using one or both of Alexis and Walcott as orthodox wingers and Mesut Özil as an auxiliary central midfield player. It’s not a system that looks as though it would maximise our attacking attributes. If you think Arsenal are susceptible to the counter attack now, those individuals playing in that shape would represent an open invitation to hump some Arsenal leg when attacks break down.
Ultimately the interchangeability of Walcott, Alexis and Welbeck may prove to be the way forward. Whether Giroud is the sun around which two of those three players orbit; or whether they play together with Giroud ensconced in an envelope marked ‘Plan B’ is the question. Of course Arsenal could and probably will rotate their options and they even have the opportunity to tailor their approach according to the weaknesses of the opposition. (HERESY! HERESY I SAY!)
The manager has two very good strikers that possess very different and interesting attributes. This gives him some very different combinations which is both a blessing and a curse. Arsenal’s season has largely been a frustrating quest for chemistry and not having a convincing first choice is unlikely to hurry that process along. Yet Welbeck was a signing of the utmost necessity in the short term. Wenger’s forward line probably doesn’t have the unstoppable sheen he imagined when he tailed the likes of Higuain and Suarez, but he has enough pieces now. The task is to fashion them into shape. LD.
Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA