Saturday, February 4, 2023

Giroud’s Redemption Song

At the final whistle on Friday night, the Emirates Stadium DJ blew the dust off of the vinyl sleeve and reached for an old classic. The closing refrain of ‘Hey Jude’ echoed and a breathless arena reappropriated the words in honour of match winner Olivier Giroud. Finally, Arsenal fans were singing from the same hymn sheet with regards to the Frenchman, quite literally.

In 2015, I wrote an article about Giroud in the wake of a nightmarish performance against Monaco in the Champions League. I described him as an ‘unwanted stepson’ in North London, a figure of woe doomed to be misunderstood for the rest of his days. The Monaco catastrophe was ill-timed from Olivier, arriving in the immediate aftermath of some pointed criticism from Thierry Henry, a striker whose legendary status at Arsenal was assured.

In cocking a snook at Giroud, Henry was also trying to carve out a niche as a pundit after some unconvincing performances of his own on the Sky sofa. Giroud evidently took the criticism a little too much to heart. We have all become familiar with Giroud’s favoured expression of anguish, flicking his wrist and scrunching his face up in faux agony, like a man carrying the world upon his shoulders.

With each gilt-edged chance missed against Monaco, his features tightened and he thrashed at the ball with an increasing air of desperation. Prior to this, Giroud had come in for plenty of criticism during his Arsenal career for the crime of not quite being world class. Gunners’ fans had been accustomed to the likes of Ian Wright, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie leading the line and Giroud’s name doesn’t quite belong in that company.

But too often this led to an underestimation of his qualities and an exaggeration of his flaws. Misconception has been a huge feature of Giroud’s Arsenal tenure. His size and stature make him a handy target man and the volume of headed goals suggest an aerial prowess befitting a man of his build. But it is his more subtle, even dainty qualities that have always been his key attribute.

His ‘soft feet’ around the penalty area have contributed to many a beautiful Arsenal team goal. The two finest goals scored at Emirates Stadium had Giroud at their heart and both demonstrated his significant technical qualities. Seconds before his late winner against Leicester on Friday, a header executed whilst a big centre half tried manfully to pull his shirt off of his back and get a glimpse of those chiselled abs, we saw his most precious commodity.

The ball floated into the penalty area over Giroud’s head and all in one movement, he both controlled and touched the ball down for Alexandre Lacazette. It was an exquisite piece of link play. This is why Giroud starts for France, he provides the perfect foil for Antoine Griezmann, whom France’s attack is based around. For Griezmann, Giroud is someone to perform with.

Giroud is renowned for his good looks and this has actually caused further misconceptions to whir around him. His handsomeness has led to an assumption of vanity, he unwittingly became the poster boy for Arsenal’s supposed ‘dressing room selfie’ culture, unbeloved of the punditocracy’s coterie of angry dads.

This reputation was entirely unfounded, Giroud’s social media accounts have been largely dormant for years and there is precious little evidence of a man afraid of chipping a nail. His extreme physical durability is also underplayed as a result of his more natural charms. Giroud is rarely injured and on the few occasions that he is, he returns quickly. In December 2013, Olivier had his foot stitched together at half time at St. James’ Park after some rough treatment from the Newcastle defence.

Wenger offered to substitute him, Giroud refused and scored the winner in the second half. Somebody less handsome and, well, less French would have been revered for this. These are the sort of qualities that get the ‘proper football men’ so omnipresent in British football coverage purring. It is as though being handsome and French imply a kind of suaveness and affectation that could not possibly co-exist with a high pain threshold.

Slowly, it feels as though Giroud is beginning to correct some long held misconceptions. His lumberjack beard has become a physical allegory for this. He has moved from a kind of chin dimpled boyband cuteness into a more rugged and, in the macho world of the Premier League, more acceptable vintage of handsomeness. Women always wanted to fuck him, but now men want to be him as well.

The journey from figure of ridicule to cult status is a well-trodden path. From Perry Groves to Emmanuel Eboue, usually it’s a road paved by guilty hands. As fans we pillory average players and then elevate them to cult status as a form of unspoken apology, the same way your partner might offer to cook in the wake of a particularly heated argument.

But Giroud’s road to redemption has been a little more circuitous and redemptive. With the likes of Danny Welbeck, Alexandre Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez available, Giroud is no longer Arsene’s solitary option upfront. As such, he has finally found his niche as the Gunners’ ‘Plan B’ from the substitute’s bench, the trump card tucked neatly inside Wenger’s sleeve. (We all know that ‘Plan B’ is footballese for ‘get the big man on’).

The Frenchman forces Arsenal into a style they are not entirely cut out for when played from the start, but there are few better catalysts than Giroud if you need to change the course of a game. It’s a role the man himself does not really care for, which is entirely understandable. Giroud’s mentality is another of his less celebrated qualities.

I know I have written his Arsenal career off many times now. After his horror show against Monaco, or his needless red card in Zagreb, when Arsenal briefly experimented with Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez as centre forwards, or his ‘hotel indiscretion’ prior to a 5-1 defeat at Anfield in February 2014. But every time, Giroud has clawed his way back from the precipice- he meets adversity with an insatiable work ethic.

The player considered his future this summer following the signing of Alexandre Lacazette and with good reason too. Olivier pushes whoever is ahead of him in the pecking order to the limit and it is a relief that he has decided to snap at the heels of Alexandre Lacazette too. The brief flurry of speculation over his future has, I think, contributed to his increase in popularity at the Emirates.

“Something in my heart and soul told me to stay,” he admitted on Friday. The minute you let it into your heart, then you can start to make it better. In rescuing the team from the bench once more on Friday, Giroud is on course to cement a newfound cult status. But this journey has not been solely one of misconceptions gradually correcting themselves. The player has improved too, most notably in his finishing. Where once he was profligate, he is now more clinical.

It could be that Giroud is a better chaser than a leader, much like Jens Lehmann was. Maybe he is just more impressive when trying to fight his way into the team than when he assumes centre stage- more supporting actor than lead man, more Carlos Queiroz than Alex Ferguson. Whatever, as a backing singer, Olivier Giroud is finally able to call the Arsenal tune and on Friday, he took a sad song and made it better.

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