Five years ago yesterday, Arsenal signed Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman became the high profile replacement for Robin van Persie, and he suffered in comparison. In reality, replacing van Persie was never going to be a one-man task, and Giroud played his part as Arsenal squeezed into the Champions League ahead of Tottenham, scoring 17 goals in a fairly impressive debut season, including goals against Spurs, Liverpool and Bayern Munich. Giroud was not, though, always first choice: Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski and Gervinho all played upfront during the season, and in the summer, Arsenal attempted an upgrade, trying first to sign Gonzalo Higuain and then Luis Suarez, before settling on Giroud as the main striker.
Giroud played most of the 2013/14 season, and played well, but stylistic issues again became an issue, especially as Giroud tired with the weight of playing almost every game got to him in the middle of the season. While Giroud’s movement is often intelligent, especially towards the near post, he’s not as effective at stretching play, because of the lack of pace. At times that doesn’t matter for Arsenal, and Giroud makes up for it with his ability to bring others into play through hold up play and good flicks and lay-offs. But throughout his time at Arsenal, it has become apparent that in certain games, Arsenal play better with a quicker option upfront, even if that option isn’t as good at scoring goals; hence, in 2013/14, Yaya Sanogo started the FA Cup 5th round tie at home to Liverpool and then started the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 tie against Bayern Munich three days later. And it largely worked: Sanogo stretched play, creating space for Mesut Özil and others, and remained a valuable option for Arsenal, highlighted by his game-changing replacement of Lukas Podolski in the 2014 FA Cup final, where Arsenal finally played with 11, with Sanogo joining Giroud upfront.
Since that season, Arsenal have signed Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez and Lucas Perez, all ostensibly to play upfront, though Alexis, having played upfront in August 2014 didn’t play again in the role until August 2016. Theo Walcott has also played as a striker at times, and yet despite different options, and for all his supposed faults and opposition from the fanbase, Giroud has remained, notching nearly a goal (.90) per 90 minutes in the league last season, ahead of Alexis, Sergio Aguero and Romelu Lukaku, and only second to Harry Kane of all players who played at least 1000 minutes. He became a weapon off the bench, scored Arsenal’s goal of the season, and delivered the cup-winning assist for Aaron Ramsey, the second time that particular combination has delivered the winning goal at Wembley for Arsenal.
Giroud started half of Arsenal’s final 10 games of the season, fighting with Danny Welbeck for the starting role. As with Sanogo in 2014, Welbeck was sometimes, like in the Cup final, the correct choice, even if his conversion isn’t as good as Giroud’s. Indeed, had Giroud started the Cup final, the result may have been very different, and Welbeck’s pace and running of the channels was crucial for establishing Arsenal’s dominance.
With Arsenal being linked with Alexandre Lacazette, rumours about Giroud leaving have picked up, either as a makeweight for Lacazette, or moving elsewhere. Yet with Alexis Sanchez likely to leave this summer, selling Giroud, who signed a new contract last January, would be monumentally stupid. Much of the discourse that supports selling Giroud centers around his apparent unsuitability for the side, because of his lack of pace.
It is undeniable that Arsenal were at their best last season when Alexis was Arsenal’s centre forward, and Arsenal’s form suffered when the Chilean was moved from centre forward. That he never started there again suggests that it was done because he no longer wanted to play centre forward, but that is, of course, speculation. But Arsenal’s drop in form concurred with several other factors: the mess in midfield, and loss of form of everyone associated with Arsenal’s defence, to name some notable issues.
But to say that Giroud doesn’t ‘suit’ the team is patently false. As with everything in football, the suitability of players selected depends on the tactics and nature of the opposition. If Giroud had never formed an effective partnership with any of Arsenal’s players, then it would be true to say he doesn’t suit the team. However, he has an excellent partnership with Aaron Ramsey, a good one with Mesut Özil, and has formed productive partnerships with Theo Walcott, Héctor Bellerín, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nacho Monreal. One player with whom Giroud hasn’t always played the best with is Alexis, largely because of the Chilean’s penchant to play through balls into the channels. Yet when Alexis does make runs beyond the striker from the left side (which he rarely does, doing more so from the right), Giroud ends up being a good foil, with Alexis’ equalizer against Manchester City at the end of the 2015/16 season a perfect example.
Olivier Giroud has been a fine servant over the past 5 years for Arsenal, and despite doubts and critics, has been a good striker for a good team. He is not a cure-all for Arsenal’s problems, nor is he, as some would assert, an example of their temerity to fall short. Olivier Giroud is a good player, who can do well in a number of roles, and in Arsenal side that has seen a lot of fluctuation in production outside of Alexis, Giroud is the closest to a sure thing that the Gunners have: always scoring between 16 and 24 goals per season. Such players are valuable, and it’d be extremely careless to do away with that value.