Many will tell you that there is little in the way of world class talent on these shores. Recent years has seen plenty of high profile names up sticks to pastures new, usually to one of the Spanish big two. With Bale, Suarez, Tevez, Ronaldo, to name but a few, all plying their trade in foreign leagues, it is hard to produce any real evidence to the contrary. Whilst there are undoubtedly players in England who are in or close to the world class bracket, it seems extremely rare for English clubs to buy the readymade article. Aguero arrived with a huge reputation and quickly demonstrated his knack for scoring, Matic was bought at a substantial price to command Chelsea’s midfield and a case could be made for Lloris who was one of the most highly rated keepers in Europe when Spurs paid, what seems like a bargain, £11 million for the Frenchman. Of course, Sanchez, Ozil, Di Maria, Falcao, Toure, Mangala et al, have all been purchased for big money at what should be the peak of their careers; but most of them were either deemed surplus to requirement at their respective clubs or haven’t set the world alight since moving here. With all this in mind, I think it’s safe to assume that most of the players, who join the Premier League, are bought before they hit the world class bracket or have some limitation that they may never be deemed worthy of the term.
Yet there is something pleasurable about seeing a player progress with your club. Don’t get me wrong, the feeling I got when Arsenal signed Sanchez and Ozil was of sheer elation, like the smell of bacon on a hangover fuelled morning; but seeing a player grow and develop into a prodigious talent with your club is something truly special. As Arsenal fans we have been exceptionally fortunate to see some of the greatest players in the world develop amongst our ranks. Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Ashley Cole, Freddie Ljunberg, Robert Pires, Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas all became footballing superstars under Arsene Wenger’s tutelage; whilst not all stayed at Arsenal to ‘repay’ the faith shown in them – that’s an argument for another time, it was fantastic to witness the individual growth and the players at the peak of their powers.
Despite our improved recent financial clout, Wenger is still determined to nurture talent and introduce it on the biggest stage. There are a number of candidates in this current Arsenal team alone; Koscielny who arrived from Ligue 2 in France is one of the best centre backs in the league, Ramsey who was once the target of much derision proved his value last year with some unplayable performances and Santi Cazorla, who stepped into the centre midfield berth this year, is directing play much like a musical conductor. However, it is the continued improvement of Olivier Giroud that excites my nether region more than any other. The handsome Frenchman, bought at a reasonable £12 million from Montpeillier, arrived with little in the way of expectations. We had signed Podolski and Cazorla but lost RvP to the dark side in the immediate aftermath. Podolski represented something of a coup, a player who was capped over 100 times with an exceptional scoring record and a thunderous left foot and Cazorla joined with a reputation for being the best player outside of the big two in Spain. Giroud, on the other hand, was known to few despite his meteoric rise from Ligue 2 in France. He was Ligue 1’s top scorer in 2011-12 and was pivotal in their march towards the title.
His first season with Arsenal was reasonable for a player who had only two top flight seasons to his name. Played as a lone centre forward for much of the season, Giroud scored a reasonable 17 goals and 11 assists in 47 appearances. It was clear that the pace and the aggression of the Premier League was much higher than that of French football. Fanciful calls from fans to sign a big name striker, namely Benzema, were ignored by Arsene Wenger as Giroud went into his second season with Arsenal as their only viable centre forward option. Giroud continued his dogged improvement scoring 22 goals in 51 games and providing an excellent foil to Arsenal’s other attacking players. Giroud was certainly more clinical than the player from the previous season, especially when attaching the near post; but doubts still remained, mostly due to an inability to impose his physicality and a distressing incapacity to score against any of the big teams in big games. His deficiencies were exaggerated when Arsenal’s title challenge fell apart due to injuries and a bad run of form post Christmas but his ability to hold the ball and link up play, in particular with Aaron Ramsey, whose third man running understanding was complimented by Giroud’s intricate one twos, became a real highlight of the season.
The summer that followed saw Wenger splurge on both Sanchez and Welbeck. Neither seemed to be a direct opponent for the centre forward role but both made appearances in the position when Giroud suffered the hugely unlucky leg break at the start of the season. Welbeck, similar to Giroud, linked up well with the other attacking options in the team, often making runs into the channels, holding the ball up well and finding feet with the majority of his passes. Unlike Giroud, his finishing was erratic and left much to be desired. Sanchez fared little better in the role, constantly coming deep to collect the ball he often left the attack disjointed. He had an excellent ability to score goals but would often give the ball away cheaply with wayward short passes. In addition, by moving Sanchez central he became the focal point of attention to both centre backs and wasn’t afforded the time and space he receives on the wing to affect play. Both players had attributes that made them a viable option at centre forward but neither had the all-round game that Giroud boasts. So it was pleasing to see Giroud enter the fray on November 20th against Manchester United from the subs bench. What we saw in that brief cameo offered a slither of hope for the remainder of the season. At 2 nil down, Giroud came on and made an immediate impact smashing the ball on the half volley into the corner. It was too late to make any significant difference in the game but it would serve to remind everyone what Arsenal had been missing of late. As fitness returned so did form. In the 18 league appearances since his injury, Giroud has scored 14 goals. The commodity of the goals were of huge importance also. He scored against Man City in a 2 nil win, he netted against Liverpool in what turned out to be a 2-2 draw, he scored the winner over Crystal Palace in a 2-1 victory, opened the scoring against Everton and QPR in respective 2 – nil and 2-1 wins, repaid the managers faith after his nightmare against Monaco by scoring a goal and providing an assist in a 3-0 win over West Ham and providing 2 goals in a 2-1 win over a tricky Newcastle team. His latest goal came against Liverpool at the weekend, providing the very tasty icing on the top of the cake with a sumptuous guided shot.
Often attacked for his inability to affect big games, Giroud has put them accusations to rest with some colossal goals and performances. But his purpose in the team does not equate to putting the ball in the back of the net. Giroud does so much more. He wins an extraordinary 4.1 aerial duels per game, that’s almost 3 times the amount Diego Costa wins for Chelsea. He draws more fouls than Kane, Costa and Aguero. He loses possession 1.8 times per game compared to Costa’s 2.8 and Aguero and Kane’s 2.6. He falls behind Costa marginally on key passes per game but is above both Aguero and Kane; and despite playing 600 less minutes than Kane and Costa he is level on assists. For a player who was brought in during a summer of much upheaval he has done tremendously well. Wenger himself has recognised the improvement and believes there is still more to come from the Frenchman.
“Between when I brought [Giroud] here, and when you look at him today, I think there’s a hell of a difference. That’s credit to him - to the player he was and the player he is today, plus credit for his whole season, where he has worked very hard. I think there’s still room for improvement for him.”
He is the classic example of a player who is more than the sum of his parts. He raises the game of others around him. He holds his position well, allowing more mobile players to pick up space behind the defence or in front of the midfield. His penchant for flicks and playing the ball round the corner allows Arsenal to keep the ball moving quickly and creating areas of space to cause damage to the opposition. His presence in the team both supports the attack and gives an element of defensive stability. He can often be seen taken responsibility at corners, marking the opposition’s most dangerous player and is the focal point for the majority of our kick-outs. He is also a leader. During the Liverpool game, he was the first over to Bellerin to celebrate the youngster’s goal and his sheer delight in seeing Sanchez score was obvious for all to see; he is an enabler in the squad and he accepts the role willingly. Wenger recognises this and recently praised him for it:
“His touch, his link play, his finishing have all improved since he arrived in England and today he is a better player. He is one of the best strikers in the world because he scores the goals, has a presence and he’s a fighter as well. Above all he is a team player - he fights for the team.”
There are players littered throughout leagues in Europe that people will rate higher; players who dribble past opponents, attempt audacious Hollywood passes and score long range screamers. But there are few players who truly up the game of those around them as well as Giroud does. His presence in the team is much more than a target man, he is a constant in our fluid attack, a cog that allows Arsenal to tick whilst others profit from his functionality. His performances at the club have improved year on year; and with this improvement he has slowly been engraving his name in the clubs archives as one of our most important players.
Til next time,