Monday, December 11, 2023

Olivier Giroud – Value and Appreciation

Olivier Giroud’s five and a half year career with Arsenal was colourful to say the least. I had cause to write about the chiselled Frenchman many times during his Gunners tenure, but two pieces really stand out that nicely summarise his unique arc. (No, I am not talking about that gif). Following a profligate display against Monaco in March, 2015, I described him as an ‘unwanted stepson’ at the Emirates.

On an evening where Arsenal found a new and thrilling way to balls up another Champions League round of 16 tie, Giroud spent much of the match clenching his jaw and beating the turf in frustration, before letting out an upward sigh into the chilly night air. This was arguably Giroud’s nadir at the club as he stared down the ire of a fan base more accustomed to elite level centre forwards.

For much of the first half of his time in North London, Giroud was criticised for what he was not. Bought during the same summer that Robin van Persie left for Manchester United, the Frenchman was, perhaps unfairly, cast as his replacement. Yet in reality, Lukas Podolski was intended as van Persie’s follow up act.

Podolski started upfront for the first game of the 2012-13 season, with Giroud on the substitutes bench in a box marked ‘break in case of emergency.’ Arsene quickly shelved the Poldi experiment and Giroud accidentally became Arsenal’s first choice striker. Giroud was very good, but the lineage that preceded him- van Persie, Henry, Anelka, Wright- belonged in the ‘great’ category.

Wenger tried many times to side-line him and to restore him to his intended position- firmly in the envelope marked ‘Plan B.’ Gervinho and Alexis had short spells in a false 9 role, Theo Walcott briefly threatened to be a centre forward, Danny Welbeck joined after Olivier obtained one of the few injuries he has picked up in an Arsenal jersey. Ultimately, Giroud was always able to fight his way back into the team, though the suspicion loomed that the manager wanted a more mobile striker.

In the background, Arsenal made various attempts to buy other centre forwards- Higuain, Suarez, Benzema- even Demba Ba and Jamie Vardy were cased heavily by Arsenal during this time. Giroud’s ability to rise from the phoenix is part of what made him such a good back up striker- he provided stiff competition to whoever was ahead of him.

Stylistically, Giroud and Arsenal has always felt like a slightly awkward fit, even if his array of soft touches and flourishes around the penalty area saw him contribute significantly to the Gunners’ more picturesque strikes. The signing of Alexandre Lacazette last summer was the first fatal wound for Olivier’s Arsenal career. The capture of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang proved to be the final sprinkle of soil on his Gunners coffin.

Since that disastrous evening against Monaco, Giroud’s popularity amongst the fan base has steadily increased. So the second piece that jumps to mind is this one, written after his last gasp winner against Leicester in August. The article dealt with his full circle journey into cult heroism as Arsenal’s supersub. For this is the contrary fact about Giroud, the less he played, the more popular and more valuable he became.

No striker relishes the ‘supersub’ moniker, but Giroud’s attributes as a not so secret weapon from the bench are rare and commodifiable. Chelsea spent much of the January transfer window groping around for any old beanpole striker for exactly this purpose. Tottenham’s attempts to purchase adequate back up for Harry Kane have been equally haphazard. It is a difficult role to play.

Chelsea’s model has caused them some issues when it comes to squad building. Players like Danny Drinkwater, Antonio Rudiger and Ross Barkley are squad filler at Stamford Bridge, but they are key players for the respective selling clubs, which makes them expensive to acquire. The role of back up striker is generally best played by somebody experienced enough to know how to play it and old enough not to quibble about playing reduced minutes.

Giroud hits that sweet spot perfectly. His popularity has hugely increased in North London since he was slightly marginalised. Most Arsenal fans appreciated his qualities as a high level squad player but felt the club needed a more big ticket option in the starting XI. So Giroud has become more coveted as a backing vocalist than he ever was as a lead singer.

With Giroud’s departure an inevitability, tributes have come pouring in from Arsenal fans. Comments around his loyalty and dignity have provided the wallpaper for many of these accolades. Without wishing to urinate on those particular chips too much, players are usually as loyal as their options. It doesn’t seem like Olivier received many better offers during his time at the club. He was good to Arsenal, but Arsenal was also a pretty sweet deal for him.

Had a Barcelona or a Madrid, or even oil rich Manchester City’s interest been piqued, he probably would have left- understandably so. What is amazing is that its Giroud’s scarcity of playing time that has illustrated his value and so, for the first time, a competitor has expressed an interest in his services. That he is joining Chelsea and doing so with the best wishes of the majority of Arsenal fans, does however say a lot for the esteem he is held in as a person.

It is far from ideal that he will bolster Chelsea’s ranks, but it is also heartening to see fans react with maturity to his decision. Staying in London would have been a big factor for him and his family (and his family are not mere furniture that can be moved around on a whim) and most of us probably recognise that ‘the London factor’ has worked favourably for Arsenal over the years.

Stylistically, Arsenal have taken another baby step away from him this season. The sale of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain was significant for his prospects. The Gunners don’t really have anybody providing artillery for him from wide positions any longer. Giroud struck up a good understanding with Theo Walcott, who has also left for pastures new this month.

The acquisitions of Lacazette, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan suggest that Arsene is moving towards something sleeker and with greater fleet of foot. Holding onto Giroud as a rainy day policy from the bench would have been a nice to have, but ultimately not essential enough to turn down good money for a squad player in his early 30s. The wishes of the player are also a factor and for better or worse, we know that the manager accounts for the human element in these decisions.

It’s going to take some time to adjust to the idea of Giroud in a Chelsea shirt, but with the money sloshing around in the Premier League now, the top clubs have traded players far more frequently in recent years. In that respect, it is a little like Serie A in the early to mid-90s. When the time has come for a player to leave a club, they are reluctant to leave the league because of the better t’s and c’s on offer.

Literature is preoccupied with the concept of the bildungsroman. The bildungsroman is a novel where the central protagonist undergoes a formative process of education, developing both morally and psychologically as the story progresses. In their description of the bildungsroman novel, the Britannica encyclopaedia explains that ‘the bildungsroman traditionally ends on a positive note, though its action may be tempered by resignation and nostalgia.’

It seems fair therefore to describe Olivier Giroud’s Arsenal story in this literary tradition, as a player and character that developed and improved during his five and a half years in North London. What makes Olivier’s particular story so unique is that his stock increased the more sparsely he was used. Giroud appreciated in value and, well, appreciation. But ultimately, when you love someone, you have to set them free. Au revoir Olivier, bon chance.

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