Olivier Giroud and Arsenal’s Striker Issue

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.

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Arsenal 2013-14 Season Review

The football season is over. Arsenal have achieved the infamous ‘fourth-place trophy’ and the Football Association Cup. Looking back, the season has been a bit dissapointing for players and fans alike with the team topping of the league table for 128 days but having dropped to fourth since february. On September the second, the whole club including the fans were in flying spirits sitting top of the league, having signed world-class Playmaker Mesut Özil and having just beaten bitter-rivals Tottenham Hotspur a day ago. That day, the future looked bright and the premier league title seemed quite a reasonable target. That notion was soon to be vindicated, with Mesut Ozil making a dazzling debut and assisting Olivier Giroud within 11 minutes on the field playing in an Arsenal shirt and the team staying top of the league till February 7th aside from a minor hiccup in December, in between surviving a champions league group that contained Napoli, Marseille and Borussia Dortmund. Looking just a little further back, but exactly nine months to day of the F. A. Cup final, a 3-1 defeat at home to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, at the end of which the players and the manager were treated to a chorus of ”spend some fuckin’ money”, most arsenal fans would have gladly taken a Champions League spot and an F. A. Cup that has ended a nine year trophy drought.
Assessing the team’s progress this season, Wenger has praised the defensive stability of the team but has recognized room for improvement in its offensive ability, sighting the ‘absolutely brutal and fantastic offensive potential’ of the league winners Manchester City and the runners-up Liverpool. And looking back over the season, you can’t help but agree. When you look at Arsenal’s matches this season, against the teams from the top half of the table, Arsenal’s Win-Tie-Loss record is 7-5-6. In the 12 games against the other 6 teams in the top 7, Arsenal’s record is 3-4-5, two of them hard-fought 1-0 wins against Tottenham Hotspurs. That is a surprisingly poor record for a team holding title aspirations. In all of these 18 games, Arsenal have scored 21 goals and conceded 26. Split home and away, the record is 11-2 and 10-24 respectively. The defensive ability of the team at home was very impressive, and was rightly praised. But for a team the stature of Arsenal, averaging approximately one goal scored per game is clearly not enough and in those matches, the team visibly struggled to create goal-scoring chances. And while the away defensive record is skewered because of those 3 away losses against the top of the table teams, it still remains a cause of concern. So, despite having such an underwhelming record against the teams from the top half of the table, especially against those in the top 7, how did Arsenal manage to stay top of the league for 128 days and in the end, finish just 7 points short of the title-winners? Because, they made up for it by winning most of the games against the teams from the bottom half of the table. In those games, Arsenal’s record stands 17-2-1, with the only loss coming on the opening day of the season against Aston Villa, the draw against Swansea City coming after a 0-6 loss at Chelsea and in the draw against Southampton, the team made a dramatic second-half comeback after going 1-0 down before conceding an unfortunate own goal in the dying minutes. But, even in the 4-1 win against the now relegated team Norwich city, a match in which Jack Wilshere finished off the goal of the premiere league season besides 3 other respectable contenders, the rest of the gameplay beside the goals was frankly, a bit boring. Up till February, that has summed up the style of play against mid-table and bottom of the table teams. The team has been defensively solid, created some chances and have been clinical with them. And in this way, the season has been a bit enigmatic, the Gunners have scored goals that have been vintage Arsenal, but the general gameplay has been anything but. So, what exactly have The Gunners been missing?
This season, on the left flank, Wenger has mostly played Cazorla and more so towards the end, Podolski. On paper, Özil has started in the number 10 role, but during the game he hardly stays there and drifts laterally across the pitch finding pockets of space and thus also allowing Aaron Ramsey to push forward from the deep and Wilshere/Rosicky/Cazorla/Podolski to drift inside from wide positions. Consequently, the attacking trio/quartet of arsenal ahead of Arteta and/or Flamini and behind Giroud has been very fluid, interchanging positions and maximizing use of space, and were at their devastating best in the Champions League group stage match against Napoli at home. It was notable even then, that after completely dominating Napoli and dazzling the Emirates crowd and especially goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny in the first half, scoring two very good goals in the process, Arsenal chose to sit back and close the game out rather than go for more glory in the second half.
But many times this season, Arsenal have lacked players with the burst of pace to get on the end of passes and cause the opposition defense problems. Its not that Arsenal lack such player in the squad, rather that everyone in the team who have quality to do that have been unavailable for long periods this season. Walcott has been injured for most of the season but in the matches he did play, his contribution was obvious. Aaron Ramsey was in fantastic form at the start of the season and his Goal and Assist statistics prove that, but in December-end he got injured. He started right where he left off once he came back, but by then the title was already lost. Podolski was also injured long-term and took a surprising amount of time to return to full fitness, but in the matches he has played, his statistics are practically off the charts. Özil understandably took some time to adapt to the physicality of the premier league, and was perhaps overplayed at the start of the season leading to some fatigued performances, and spent some considerable time out injured too. Oxelade-Chamberlain started on the left wing on the opening day of the season, and assisted Olivier Giroud early in the first half, but got injured long-term soon after in the match. He returned to the team on very good form, before getting injured again. Young prospect Serge Gnabry gave some promising performances showing surprising physical strength, work rate and confidence for such a young player before he too got sidelined with a knee injury. The finger has been often pointed at giroud for not having enough speed and consequently not making runs off the ball, but for me, that is one quality he never had and just cannot gain, however much he continues his development despite his age, and it is therefore useless to blame him for that. In any case, he has made up for it by greatly improving his passing and hold up play and has become a passing pivot in the final third that many are saying is Bergkamp-esque. So, without the pace in the team, the attacking players such as Wilshere, Cazorla and Rosicky have tried to play the one-twos with Giroud, making the runs themselves. When this has worked, it has worked brilliantly, Sunderland and Norwich City games being the prime examples. But as the statistics show, against teams in the top half of the table, this has not been enough. In the three matches this season against Chelsea, Arsenal have failed to score a single goal. Giroud, as a lone striker often gets isolated by the opposition Centre-halves and although this affords the attacking midfielders some extra space, they have not been able to do much with it, since so often this season, there has been no one to run on to their through balls.
And in such times of attacking adversity, the Gunners have still refused to play the long ball forward or just resort to crossing the ball from the wings even when both Giroud and Sanogo are playing upfront, sticking to their guns in trying to unlock defenses, i. e., creating little passing triangles by using Giroud as the passing pivot in an attempt to spring one of the attacking players behind, the Cup final being a prime example of this attitude. If you look at the arsenal goals this season, so many of them have come this way. And ironically enough, because Arsenal have been playing this way, despite having a plethora of creative midfielders in the starting XI itself, never mind the whole squad, Giroud has been delivering the final ball with midfielders like Wilshere, Ramsey and Rosicky finishing off the goals. But, despite doing this so well, and being the best at it in the league, there has to be a lot of improvement here. Arsenal players rarely set out to dribble (even players like Özil who Wenger has praised to have better dribbling ability than Zinedine Zidane, choose to pass the ball if a teammate is free rather than go solo), i. e., dribbling the ball only when they have no other choice left. And yes, it is not a good idea to stick to this principle strictly, because dribbling past a player in the final third still remains a very effective way of opening up space for your teammates as well as yourself, and I think we will see much more moments of individual quality that is undoubtedly there from players like Özil, Wilshere and Ramsey next season(this moment has stuck in minds of many Arsenal fans this season, because it capped off Aaron Ramsey’s astounding improvement since the start of 2013 into the complete footballer). But, in general, because Arsenal are dribbling the ball less and instead relying on passing, or to put in a broader context, because Arsenal are more reliant on team-play rather than individual quality, the neat passing moves and inter-plays have to be stepped up a couple of notches next season because as I said above, strong defenses have been able to snuff them out for the most part. And most probably Arsenal will get better at it, because the set of players are still relatively new to each other. Cazorla and Giroud have just completed two seasons in the premier league and with Arsenal. Ramsey has completed just a season and a half as a first team regular. Özil has just completed his first season in the premier league and with Arsenal but has already been tipped by Wenger to challenge for The Player of the Season award next season. The understanding between these players will improve, especially after having another pre-season, which on the face of it doesn’t seem much but is very crucial because it is hard to have any sort of training ground improvement in the middle of the season. The return of Theo Walcott will also help massively in this respect because he has so much speed and acceleration, that even when he has an off-day, his runs will always have defenders worried and backtracking and consequently offering the other Arsenal attackers more space to work their magic.