Olivier Giroud has been the standout player for Arsenal since the start of the New Year, scoring decisive goals in each of the last four games. With Alexis shunted out to the left flank, Giroud has been given the starring role and he delivered instantly in the most audacious fashion scoring with a scorpion kick in the 2-0 win against Crystal Palace. He then came up with the goods in each of the next three games, scoring the late equaliser against Bournemouth, getting the winner against Preston North End, and then on the weekend, opening the scoring as Arsenal defeated Swansea 4-0.
Giroud’s impact highlights the quality he brings to the Arsenal side but at the same time, the performances from the Gunners with him in the side in this period haven’t been entirely convincing. Only the win over Crystal Palace could be said where Arsenal had a semblance of fluency, though that was aided somewhat by their opponents granting large amount of space down the sides and behind, suiting Arsenal’s game-plan perfectly.
Against Swansea, Arsenal were once again subdued, and it wasn’t until Giroud’s opener that they found joy. Of course, credit must also go to Swansea who began well by blocking passes into the centre. Their two strikers dropped back into their own half when the ball was with Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi, so it was hard to find one of the midfielders.
Arsenal have an almost unique build up style where the midfielders move up the pitch, aiming to drag the opponent midfielders with them to open up the space in the middle. Thus Ramsey would drop deep in the first-half, and Xhaka push up, or both together at the same time.
However, Swansea weren’t tempted and set up in an organised line that stopped the centre-backs playing the piercing pass forward. As a result, most of the attacks went down the left in the first-half, where Arsenal were also strongest and that Hector Bellerin, the usual outlet when passing out from deep, was missing on the other side.
Usually, when Alexis plays up front, he tends to drop off, thus making an extra man in midfield. Essentially, this gives Arsenal two number 10s, and this allows them to gain a foothold in the game. From there, runners ran off him, and thus set into motion the interchange that makes Arsenal a joy to watch. Alexis also has a fantastic turn so when the ball is played to him in tight spaces, he can suddenly change the angle of the attack.
It’s not over the top to say that he, along with Bellerin, make Arsenal dynamic. By switching him to the left, he’s still able to have a large influence on the game, but the team probably loses that unpredictability that he provides up front. Indeed, I featured a quote from Pep Guardiola in one of my last blogs on Alexis on the importance of having dribblers in the centre, because it provokes defenders to come out.
Giroud, on the other hand, remains largely static, offering himself mainly as a wall to bounce passes off, a tactic which is rarely used anyway. Thus his primary role tends to be when he ball is dead, from throw-ins and goal-kicks, helping to get the team up the pitch, or when the defenders are under pressure and are forced to go long.
It may be a little harsh to apportion the blame in the build up to Giroud because after all, it’s not usually said that strikers affect the fluency of a team’s approach play. But of course, Arsene Wenger sides have always been heavily influenced by the centre-forward, who are not only measured by their goalscoring output, but for the way they set the tempo for good attacking play.
In any case, strikers these days are expected to do more. The use of Alexis in this vague number nine role broadly follows a trend in the modern game where strikers are required to balance a number of duties with that of goalscoring.
Roy Hodgson once voiced his concerns over this role, saying: “I wonder how this will evolve. There is a danger that this job will become too lonely and too difficult. In many cases, the striker is not just expected to act as a target and to hold the ball up, but also to do a lot of chasing and to work hard as the first line of defence.”
As such, strikers tend to come in all shapes and sizes nowadays, and it’s no coincidence that some of the best forwards are converted midfielders. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the most famous examples, but Roberto Firminho, Dries Mertens, and Antoine Griezmann can also be said to be similar players to Alexis who have successfully converted to the role at the highest level.
Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic can be said to be a distant cousin of this false type of forward, often spending as much of his game foraging for the ball deep as does fighting with the last defender. Giroud too, has had to add others tools to his game, of course endearing to fans with his hard work, but has also been forced to improve technically, which Wenger recently alluded to upon the striker signing his new contract.
Players run more now, therefore it’s become standard to expect an extra 2km from your strikers. Robin van Persie can be said to be a trailblazer, boasting in his time at Arsenal that he always topped 11km a game. He too was also forced to adjust his game, becoming a master of the modern number 9 role, moving Jurgen Klopp to declare after Arsenal beat Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, that he’s “hardly ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.”
Alexis is cut from the same cloth, and in recent games as a centre forward has balanced his game better, so it was a little strange to see him taken him out as the spearhead. However, it perhaps came unstuck in back-to-back defeats in December to Everton and Manchester City, therefore Giroud’s ability to get Arsenal out of adverse situations was welcome, and he showed that when he headed in the winner against West Bromich Albion in the next game.
Still, praise tends comes from the same way that criticism is dished, and it is said that is that Giroud can offer nothing for large periods of a match, before coming up with the telling contribution. His stylistic impact, as a wall to bounce passes off, is also less profound these days. The flicks around the corner are less frequent, whilst the ball into the box from wide, even though it is a legitimate weapon in Arsenals armoury these days, tends to be used only sporadically.
That might just be a question of the team lacking the correct balance, and perhaps the bigger issue is finding the right configuration in central midfield. Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey as a partnership still need time to gel but the signs were better against Swansea even if it took some time for the team to get going.
Ramsey began to drive forward in the second-half as space opened but is also showing more discipline in when he chooses the runs and where he picks up the ball. It will be particularly interesting thus, to see how he dovetails with Ozil. In the first-half, when Ramsey pushed up, Ozil attempted to fill in and pick up the ball from those deeper positions.
Wenger is also persisting with deploying two wide players who tend to step inside in the build up. That’s probably restricted Giroud’s capability to drop into those spaces but at the same time, in these three games, he’s developed a neat partnership with Lucas Perez (though he didn’t feature from the start against Swansea).
Indeed, it’s Giroud’s winner against Preston last week, combining with Lucas, which for me offers the best glimpse of how Arsenal can use him better. Here, when Aaron Ramsey picks up the ball deep in the opponent’s half, Giroud exchanges quick glances with the midfielder and the potential space behind to attack and Ramsey duly delivers, playing a lofted ball towards the angle of the box.
Giroud knocks it down to Lucas who makes a run off him and returns it with a back-heel which Giroud converts. The target man option, which is typically thought of as getting the ball wide and crossing it to him, can probably be better utilised by just playing it up to him at times, something which is rarely exploited by Arsenal.
It's simple to say we don't always play to Giroud's strengths – that usually means crossing it – but we rarely utilise this pass from Ramsey https://t.co/xQ7faCjPQF
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) January 7, 2017
The brilliant people of Twitter have kindly pointed out to me there have been two instances in recent times when Arsenal have played such a pass up to him – and interestingly, both involve Ramsey, against Bournemouth away last season, and Ludogerets this season. It hints at the different ways players use Giroud and the understanding they have with him.
Ozil tends to play the ball to his feet more often than not, looking for lay-offs, and as he showed against WBA, also tends looks for the cross to the back post from an inside right position. Alexis on the other hand, prefers the cross to the near post, which is how he found Giroud for that famous goal against Crystal Palace.
But perhaps, the type of link up we saw with Ramsey might hint at the final evolution of Giroud’s role at Arsenal, especially if Wenger persists with having two wingers who step inside. Because by deploying the direct option from midfield, playing it long to Giroud as he peels off, it can open up the space in front of the opposition defence (instead, as he so often does, stands with his back to goal waiting to provide the lay off).
This would be especially valuable against teams that defend deep, particularly when Arsenal played West Brom for example, where the majority of the match was played in a u-shape in front of their own box.
As it happened against Swansea, Giroud didn’t need to be involved much to make the difference. The cross from the left to open the scoring, wasn’t initially meant for him, but as Ozil’s header was blocked, it fell to Giroud, who was in the right place at the right time once again .