Olivier Giroud has always been a bit of a slow burner. Just as it took him five years in the lower tiers of French football to gain employment from a top flight club, just as he had to wait until the age of 24 to represent the France national team, it’s required two-and-a-half seasons of hard graft at Arsenal for the 6 foot 4 striker to earn his share of critical acclaim, following a brace-grabbing display against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup’s fifth round.
The justification of £10million price-tag has never come into question, but the ultimate instalment in a line of Gunners strikers that includes Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robin van Persie, three of the greatest forwards in Arsenal and Premier League history, Giroud has always struggled to replicate the impact and quality of his many world-class forbearers.
A return of 27 goals in his first 70 Premier League appearances, although nothing to be sniffed at, was hardly noteworthy at a club that’s won the division thrice before and reached the group stages of the Champions League for 17 consecutive seasons; indeed, over the last two terms it seemed there were many strikers in world football that could be scoring at that rate or greater for a Gunners side prolific in chance creation, whilst offering a more dynamic all-round game.
This season however, we’ve witnessed what Arsenal fans will be hoping is something significantly closer to the real Olivier Giroud, the one that convinced Arsene Wenger to take a punt on an in-form Montpellier forward in 2012 over the more expensive, more experienced and more coveted options on the market that summer.
In terms of goals, the France international has finally broken the one-in-two barrier in England, netting seven times in just nine Premier League starts and boasting a return of 10 in 18 across all competitions – a significant improvement upon the 17 in 42 of his opening campaign and the 22 in 51 of last season – and in the process, he’s overcome my biggest criticism of his performances over the last few years; namely, a limited impact against top sides.
Prior to the current campaign, for example, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton constituted the only noteworthy Premier League opposition the Frenchman had found the net against – teams the north Londoners will always expect to claim points from in the battle for the top four – but this term he’s scored past Manchester United and Manchester City already. In fact, of his seven league goals, only one has come against opposition that didn’t finish in the Premier League’s top ten last season – Aston Villa.
But it’s the added sense of aggression in Giroud’s game that’s become most prevalent lately, as if the 28 year-old has finally realised how imposing, threatening and effective his 6 foot 4 frame can be.
Tenacity is something the Gunners have desperately lacked over the last few seasons, especially in forward positions, and although Giroud might not be a neanderthalic, street-brawling battering ram like Chelsea’s Diego Costa or West Ham’s Andy Carroll just yet, the physicality he now offers from the front – and the manner he utilises it to bring midfielders into the game – is intrinsic in importance to a lightweight Arsenal side often bullied out of games by their closest divisional rivals.
The source of Giroud’s improvement this term? In my opinion, there’s two psychological factors; firstly, Arsene Wenger’s relentless faith in the French forward, demonstrated by bringing him back into the starting XI as soon as possible after his foot injury at the start of the campaign, and secondly, the added competition within the Emirates squad.
As the Gunners’ most conventional and least versatile front-man, he’s always got the upper hand in the battle for the No.9 slot, but the role of Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck, all viable replacements for Giroud should his form slump, in keeping the towering striker on his toes should not be downplayed. Part-carrot, part-stick, Wenger’s methods of motivating his first-choice striker, whether by coincidence or design, have worked wonders this season.
That being said, I still remain skeptical over the former Montpellier star’s long-term role at the Emirates. If this season is Giroud’s best – although it’s very, very good – it’s still some way short of Europe’s elite front-men; the Karim Benzemas, Robert Lewandowskis and Sergio Agueros of this world. Of course, we’re talking about one of the most expensive positions a club can buy for, but if Arsenal are to ever re-emerge as the trophy-winning powerhouse of old, upgrading upon Giroud, at some point over the next two summers, remains essential.