Two years on since the departure of Robin Van Persie and the arrival of Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, yet Arsenal’s striker conundrum looks nowhere near solved yet. Arsenal started the 2012-13 season with its front four of Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Podolski and Giroud completely new to each other. Wenger said then that in the absence of Van Persie the Goal-scoring burden will be shared among Arsenal’s attacking players rather than one man taking the responsibility on his shoulders. And it was, with all of these players netting in double figures with Walcott the top-scorer. This season with Walcott injured most of the time, Cazorla not quite replicating his prolific form of last season, and Podolski having been hampered by team-selection on top of a long-term injury(although he has somehow still managed to eclipse his previous season’s tally), the goal-burden has had to be shared even more diversely. Aaron Ramsey, of course, has stepped up quite spectacularly with other players like Jack Wilshere, Tomáš Rosický, Alex Oxelade-Chamberlain and Mesut Özil chipping in too. Olivier Giroud, however, has remained a constant in the team in the last two seasons.
This season he played 51 games for Arsenal in all competitions, more than anyone else in the team, including Per Mertesacker who was the lynchpin of Arsenal’s defense. That’s a staggering amount for a striker, especially for someone like Giroud who exerts himself so much physically in each game. And yet, bizarrely, he was one of the few players in the team who didn’t get injured over the course of the whole season. And one time he did suffer a cut to the foot that required 5 stitches later on, he played for the entire second half of the game with an open foot! In a season where fans have been amazed by Aaron Ramsey’s fitness levels, Giroud has gone unnoticed.
Giroud is somewhat of an anomaly in this age of star strikers. Finishing is not his strongest asset. He doesn’t have the pace that most “world-class strikers” possess. Currently the no.1 striker at one of the biggest football clubs in the world and in the French national team, not so long ago he was playing in the French Ligue 2 and told by one of his coaches that he would never make it at the top level. He has a first touch to match playmakers around the world. His ball control, quick thinking ability and the passing range in and around the box to go with it makes him so much more than just a striker. Unlike most “world-class strikers”, he is not very good with dribbling the ball but his large physique means that he can still always been relied upon when it comes to retaining possession and creating a chance out of tight space in the final third . He excels in finishing in and around the six-yard box. At the start of the season, when the team was in good form, Giroud was playing just like a natural Goal-scorer, making near post runs, showing surprising bursts of pace and finishing off goals using his fantastic first touch. His early season goals against Aston Villa, Sunderland and most notably Tottenham Hotspurs and late-on against West Ham demonstrate that. His finishing ability decreases as he moves farther away from the opposition goal. Although he can score a long-range goal – his shot against Everton that agonizingly clipped the bar and went over in the 1-1 draw at home and most recently his one touch control and sumptuously volleyed goal for France against Norway demonstrate that – but in general, the lack of space and time for strikers in the Premier League coupled with his inability to dribble himself out of tight spaces mean that he is not very prolific 20-odd yards from the goal. He does not have the ability to create a chance for himself out of nothing that most strikers have. He is someone who contributes a lot to the team’s build up play and also relies a lot upon it. When the team suffers, so does Giroud. He runs around a lot, always fighting for the ball and has great defensive work rate without the ball as the first man, setting the tone for the rest of the team. He is a genuine team player, always working hard and has an unselfishness in front of goal that is hardly seen anywhere else in the world, even with the best players. You can see how he enjoys making good passes to create scoring opportunities for his team-mates. When Arsenal are suffering from a lack of pace and drive in the team as happened so often last season due to injuries to Ramsey, Wilshere, Özil, Walcott and Oxelade-Chamberlain; they are unable to penetrate the opposition in the final third. Consequently, the goal-scoring chances that come Arsenal’s way are very few and very difficult. In such scenarios, the striker in the team is expected to step up with a moment of individual quality and convert the odd half-chance that comes his way. However, that is certainly isn’t Giroud’s strong suit and therefore he comes under much scrutiny for that. Instead what Giroud does in such scenarios is that recognizing the team’s difficulty in creating goal-scoring chances, he uses his other abilities to help out the team’s midfielders. In such cases, he becomes much more like a false-9 than a lone striker. He uses his physique and technical ability to good effect, trying to shield the ball, hold up play and in general, making sure as much as he can, that Arsenal keep possession, keep the play ticking over, all the while patiently waiting for a chance.
When he arrived at Arsenal two years ago, the team, suffering from departure of key players, was very new to each other and even now, is still getting to know each other. In such a scenario, Giroud’s style of play has provided Arsenal a cohesion in the final third and in the opposition half that would usually be impossible. In a way of speaking, he knitted the team together by doing the small things right. He has the ability to hold up the ball for the crucial couple of moments so as to give the other attackers time to find space. When the team is suffering from a lack of ideas, he has the ability to instinctively make a flick around the corner or make an incisive pass to quicken the pace or create a chance. His hardworking attitude, mental toughness and desire of improvement has gotten him much praise from the manager and the fans alike. The improvement in his hold-up and technical play since he arrived two seasons ago has been terrific. And yet, despite all his improvement and desire, he suffers from a fundamental problem that he can hardly do anything about: his lack of pace. When one comes to think about it, in a team like Arsenal’s, with so much creativity in the midfield, a forward with pace who could run on to passes behind the defense would make more sense. And in Walcott, Arsenal have such a player, but his lack of upper body strength means that he is not able to compete physically against opposition centre halves and thus finds space much harder to find in central areas, and consequently functions as a winger in Arsenal’s system. Podolski also likes to play centrally but suffers from a similar problem although another reason he is often played on the left wing is that along with his lethal finishing, he also possess a very good crossing ability. In any case, Giroud has performed admirably well for Arsenal over the last two years. He differs considerably well from the strikers that have usually played under Wenger for Arsenal, and yet, from the start he has effortlessly fit into Arsenal’s system and impressed even his critics with his dedication to the team, his work ethic and his commitment. He was especially impressive this season, despite suffering a dip of form in between(along with the rest of the team), but overall, if you ask me, he was one of the top 4 players of the season.
As the clamor for a “world-class striker” continues, one cannot help but wonder what type of forward(s) Arsène Wenger might bring in, if any. To start with, there is certainly a lack of forwards at the club. Currently, Arsenal have four forwards in the squad: Giroud, Walcott, Podolski and Yaya Sanogo. Usually, a team that competes in four competition over the course of the season has 5-6 forwards. But of course, it is not as simple as that. Arsenal’s preference to play a 4-2-3-1 system means that only one of those four forwards plays as the lone striker and the other(s) have to play on the wing(s). Theo Walcott, when fit, invariably starts the game and on the right wing. On the left, Arsène Wenger usually plays someone who can be creative with the ball, perhaps also owing to the abundance of creative midfielders in squad. It is worth noting that on the opening day of the season, Alex Oxelade-Chamberlain started in that role ahead of both Cazorla and Podolski. In the lone-striker role, Giroud is clearly first-choice and second-choice striker Yaya Sanogo is described by an overwhelming majority of the people as quite ‘raw’. Personally, I am not quite sure. Last season, in the appearances he made, he showed quite promising signs. Like Giroud, he has an imposing physique but unlike Giroud he also has decent pace. His link-up play is nowhere near at the level of Giroud, but the basic ingredients are there and it will improve. He was particularly impressive in the matches against Bayern Munich and Liverpool. Although he didn’t score in any of those games, and in fact hasn’t scored his first Arsenal goal yet; the way he battled against the imposing centre-halves of those teams and his gameplay in general was impressive, and one can easily see how he can be a regular first-team starter for Arsenal in the future. If he steps up his game during the pre-season, he can easily continue the role of second-choice striker in the squad to good effect. If not, then the question of a backup striker to Giroud remains.
But the real problem is that when Walcott is missing, aside from Oxelade-Chamberlain and young prospect Serge Gnabry, there is no one in the Arsenal team who can offer the pace in the final third, and that is a significant problem, especially considering the way that Arsenal play. As I discussed above, in such situations, Arsenal lack penetration in the final third and Giroud’s effectiveness also decreases. Simply put, when a team has so many players who can pass the ball in behind defenses, it also needs players who can run onto them.
So, for that reason, I believe that a forward who has good pace and the finishing ability to complement it is more of a priority than someone who is pretty much like Giroud and will play the third-choice, second-choice or even the first-choice striker ahead of Giroud. Of course, an all-round striker, someone who is blessed with pace and strength, who has the vision and the technical ability to link-up play and is also a clinical finisher, would be Arsenal’s best bet. Such a player would be the perfect fit to play in the lone-striker role and would also be able to play in the wings. However, such players are few and unlikey to be available and I wouldn’t be too hopefeul about it. However, I do believe that Yaya Sanogo has the potential to develop into such a complete all-round striker, but how long it takes him, we’ll just have to wait and see.