The signing of Mesut Özil in the summer of 2013 was significant not only for the quality of the player Arsenal had purchased. It was a signing of great political importance too. One can draw a line through Arsenal’s transfer history and plot acquisitions that were intended to signal a new era. To push the club onto a new plateau. Charlie Buchan, Ted Drake, Bryn Jones, Joe Mercer, Peter Marinello, Malcolm McDonald, Charlie Nicholas, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell.
Varying levels of success were achieved with those signings, but the intention was to advance the level of the whole squad. The signing of the German was meant to signal an escalation in the calibre of player that the club could entice. This policy was continued with the signing of Alexis Sanchez. The fruits of this brave new era of financial muscle are just beginning to bear fruit. This time two years ago, Lukas Podolski and Thomas Vermaelen were bona fide members of Arsenal’s first XI. Both have since been deemed surplus to requirements. In an increasingly Darwinist environment, neither could sufficiently raise their level of performance.
Olivier Giroud is a player that has divided opinion during his Gunners tenure. He has found resounding credit difficult to come by. I don’t think anybody would argue that Giroud is at the level of striker Arsenal fans have become accustomed to. This, multiplied by the general frustration over transfer inactivity in his position, led to some of the qualities he does possess being underplayed. For his first two seasons at the club, Giroud had little or no competition for his place, but that changed this summer with the signings of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck.
Over the last month or so, there are several Arsenal players that have discovered a rich vein of form. Since returning from injury, Olivier Giroud is, to my mind, very much in that coterie of players that are playing some of the best football of their Arsenal careers. Seven goals and two assists in twelve starts is a respectable tally. Giroud’s record against big teams has been understandably called into question, but this year he has registered goals against away at Manchester City (also scoring against them in the Community Shield), Liverpool, Everton and at home to Manchester United.
The signings of Welbeck and Alexis offered the potential for mobility in the centre forward position, a quality Giroud has been known to lack (lest we forget that Alexis was preferred to Giroud in a central role at Goodison Park in August). It’s true that the Frenchman would struggle to amend his issues with pace. But he has shown greater willingness to drift off into wide areas to make room for runners centrally in Arsenal’s increasingly fluid attack. Against Villa on Sunday for instance, Walcott and Özil spent a lot of time drifting into centre forward positions and that was made possible by Giroud’s flexibility.
In recent seasons, Giroud formed a much more traditional ‘little and large’ partnership with Theo Walcott. Both have very obvious qualities which were catered to very directly. It was also occasionally very predictable and easily nullified by deep defences. Giroud has always been a good central pivot for other players to bounce off of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vCbux8XHK0, but he has varied his forward play this season with a greater willingness to utilise channels and wide areas. See for instance, his tee up for Rosicky at Brighton, which emanated from a slightly wider position.
For Walcott’s effusive finish on Sunday, Giroud was stationed in the channel with Walcott running inside him. Indeed, it looked as though Cazorla was trying to nudge the ball wide to him when Theo grabbed the baton and ran with it. It could be that Giroud’s subtle shift towards a more flexible game has been a direct response to the gauntlet thrust at him by the purchases of Welbeck and Alexis. It could be a natural progression as familiarity in the team germinates. It may be that three months on the sidelines in the early part of the season offered him some time for reflection and analysis of his weaknesses.
Back in September I wrote that the signing of Welbeck could potentially reduce Arsenal’s dependence on Giroud and Walcott, because he offers a hybrid of both players’ qualities. In that piece I also aired my suspicion that Wenger would prefer to move away from a fixed target man at centre forward in favour of a more rounded, fluid approach. Perhaps Giroud felt the same and has sought to adapt his game accordingly?
Giroud’s technical level is certainly high enough to help contribute to Arsenal’s build up play. He has proved to be a pleasing foil for players running past him, as Aaron Ramsey would attest. However, the Gunners have lots of players that start wide and like to run inside and he’s showing a greater appreciation of that and Arsenal are making better, less readable angles as a result. In the shadow of the resurrection of Coquelin, the form of Rosicky, Monreal and Cazorla, the emergence of Bellerin and the goalkeeper debate, Giroud’s form has flown under the radar somewhat.
Like Giroud, Santi Cazorla arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2012. Though Cazorla was a signing from the top shelf, it was at something of a reduced price and possibly the last purchase of Arsenal’s age of relative parsimony. Cazorla’s capture was the boost over the wall into the final furlong of financial prosperity. Like Giroud, the little Spaniard has had to contend with increased competition in his position, with the arrival of Özil and the form of Aaron Ramsey. Santi was very much the star in 2012-13, but his aforementioned colleagues saw to it that Cazorla had to recalibrate his game and accept a slot further down the bill last season.
Cazorla was moved out to the left wing. This was both to accommodate Ramsey and Özil and also to facilitate Cazorla’s wanderlust. He had a tendency to drift deep, which was not always entirely suited to the number 10 role. Wenger usually deploys a left sided player with license to roam in field. The issue was that Cazorla’s roaming tends to happen closer to the halfway line and even inside his own half. Whereas the likes of Pires, Arshavin and Nasri would do so in the final third of the pitch. The solution appears to have been part accident, part conscientiousness on the player’s part.
Santi has played a deeper role in Arsenal’s midfield and the reason he has been trusted to do so is because he has added to the defensive side of the game. He was never a shirker in this respect, but his tackling average has risen from 1.0 tackles per game to 2.0 a game this season. Martin Keown spoke eloquently about Cazorla’s discipline alongside Ramsey, with Coquelin tucked in behind them. Ramsey and Cazorla has proved to be a complimentary partnership. Cazorla’s ability to release pressure in tight spaces was most notable when he was forced back by Liverpool’s incessant pressing in December. He was a standout player whilst Arsenal’s other midfielders were profligate in the face of Liverpool’s tirelessness.
Ramsey and Santi have the discipline to sit back when the opposition are in possession and both have the ability to launch attacks. This dovetail was at its best in the victory at Eastlands. Cazorla likes to master transitions with the ball at his feet. He is capable of switching the play, or finding the right pass. Ramsey likes to run beyond the ball and be on the end of the build up play. Cazorla works with the ball, Ramsey without it. They are very happy to leave one another to their own devices.
This discipline allows Özil and / or Alexis to play a freer role from wide positions and concentrate on causing damage in the final third. They can push the ball to Arsenal’s midfield and make forward runs knowing that Cazorla will take care of it. (In this sense, Cazorla has smoothed the gap of Arteta’s absence). Or else they can stay in advanced positions and expect to receive the ball. Özil is a wonderful finisher, his élan in front of goal means he rarely misses when presented with a chance. With Cazorla and Ramsey in the middle, potentially the German’s goal tally can increase.
It hasn’t always been apparent this season but the level of the Arsenal squad has heightened. This of course puts some players under threat and already we have seen the climate become too unforgiving for some. Giroud and Cazorla, signed in the final vestiges of Arsenal’s era of relative austerity, have demonstrated an aptitude for improvement. This season, both have managed to preserve their status by adding new dimensions to their game. Their environment has become more competitive and both are meeting the challenge consummately.
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