Gervinho Kicks His Arsenal Season into Gear—Is Olivier Giroud Next?
When the dust had settled—or maybe it would be more fitting to say that when the cacophony of noise, created by a hearty band of 30,000 or so local southern French ultras, whom Montpellier manager had exhorted to "give Arsenal hell" on Tuesday evening on a match Arsenal had won 2-1 in the narrowest of manners—Gunners striker Olivier Giroud finally had time to reflect.
This was a homecoming of sorts for Giroud, who grew up in the small French town of Chambéry, a stone's throw from the Alps, but spent two seasons (2010-12) with the Heraultais, a span during which he became one of the hottest prospects in the country.
Giroud scored 39 goals in just 86 appearances for Les Merlus—including a sensational strike from distance in his debut match, which happened to be a Europa League qualifier—and generated widespread applause for his multi-faceted threat as a striker.
The 6'4" Giroud scored, but also showed an innate understanding of distribution. His 12 assists—including nine in his second season—were an impressive tally for a striker, and during his first games with the French national team (he earned his first cap last November against Belgium), it was Giroud's link-up play, and not his scoring (although he did net away to Germany in a famous 2-1 victory last March), that might have made him the most attractive option to potential suitors.
And there were many, led most notably by Giroud's compatriot Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal boss is an Alsacien, from the northern region that saw its allegiance shift through wars from Gallic to Prussian and back over the past 150 years, while Giroud is a Savoyard.
But from his current standing across La Manche, Wenger has always kept a keen eye peeled upon his native country. Since taking the reins at Arsenal 16 years ago, Wenger has brought in a bevy of the top French players of the past two decades (and that's without mentioning a number of Francophiles).
Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Gael Clichy, Abou Diaby, Laurent Koscielny and now Giroud have all featured for Arsenal—and that's without even mentioning the likes of Grimandi, Pascal Cygan and Remi Garde, the latter of whom is the current manager at Olympique Lyonnais.
It speaks to Wenger's superb nose for talent that each one of those players became a credible option—some more than others, obviously—at London Colney, Arsenal's base of operations.
Many pegged Giroud to be the latest in that long line, but the striker has seen his first months in the fabled red-and-white shirt wrecked by negative reviews.
Giroud isn't scoring like he should be. He isn't taking his chances. He looks like a bust.
All are fabricated headlines, but they stem from actual ones that have graced tabloid and blog alike since the Premier League began last month.
While one wonders just how much stock the club—Wenger included—take in the noisy baying from news sources, Giroud has used the platform provided by Arsenal's official website to defend himself with what seems like abnormal frequency to assuage fans that he will, in fact, come good.
The Impossible Standard
There's a brilliant line from Barack Obama in Michael Lewis's comprehensive and, frankly, peerless article profile of the U.S. president in Vanity Fair (if you haven't checked it out, it's well worth a read).
When Obama walks into a room in the immense Air Force One jet where assembled staffers are watching a cable news analyst offer his opinion as to why the President made a certain decision, Obama, who "finds cable news genuinely toxic," preferring ESPN to be broadcast in its stead, heard the would-be prophet's opinion.
"Oh, so that's why I did it," Lewis recalled Obama saying before he turned and left the room.
Satiric, sarcastic or something in between, one thinks a similar thought must filter through Wenger's mind often throughout the course of a season.
The Frenchman's every decision is subjected to microscopic analysis by pundits, with many offering their own contingency plans.
But we don't know why Wenger makes his choices; only that, as a football manager with almost 40 years of experience under his belt, he knows a bit more than we do about the game.
That Obama line has remained with me through the early course of the Arsenal season, where, despite the Gunners' superb form through their past two league matches, where they have outscored opponents Liverpool and Southampton 8-1, news outlets remain dedicated to unearthing noxious elements that might derail the good tidings and, in the process, sell thousands of papers and a multitude of ad space.
Everyone has an opinion as to why Giroud has "failed" thus far, but leave it to those within the Arsenal managerial staff to offer a more nuanced and, frankly, positive opinion.
Steve Bould, Arsenal's assistant manager who assumed Wenger's touchline duties as the Frenchman serves a three-match UEFA ban (he can still watch from the stands), hailed Giroud's impact against Montpellier in his post-match interview with the official website.
It's safe to say, mind you, that his opinion ran against the current of popular opinion.
"Olivier did a really good team job for us tonight," Bould said. "He is another one who works really, really hard for the team. At set-pieces he is fabulous. He defends and he works for the team. I think he only had one chance tonight at the near post that was difficult. He is a really hard-working boy and I’m sure the goals will come."
Bould didn't even mention Giroud's neat assist for Lukas Podolski's equalizing goal in the 17th minute—a deft first-time touch that played the ball into the German forward's path at the top of the penalty area, where Podolski was able to collect and fire past Geoffrey Jourdren to make it 1-1.
It was the same sort of understanding that had allowed Giroud to provide two assists in France's friendly against Iceland (a 3-2 victory) in the run-up to the European Championships, a match in which he had completed seven passes out of seven (information courtesy of Opta) after coming on as a substitute.
Giroud would add another assist in a 4-0 win over Estonia in the final match before the tournament in Poland and Ukraine, and while he wouldn't shine at the Euros—a task made rather difficult when you're only given some 35 minutes over four games to prove yourself—Wenger remained convinced of the striker's potential and, after rumors that Giroud had committed to Arsenal before the Championships, signed his man just days after their close.
Now, Wenger has had to deal with yet another instance of his judgment being called into question, as Giroud has yet to find the back of the net for Arsenal through four league games and the Champions League fixture.
In order to take some of the pressure off his new signing's shoulders, Wenger, who had started Giroud against Stoke City and Liverpool, kept him on the bench against Southampton, introducing Gervinho as the central forward in Arsenal's 4-3-3.
Herein lies a delectable plot line. Gervinho was widely ridiculed as a bust last season after joining Arsenal from Lille, where he had been a prolific scorer, most notably netting 18 times as Les Dogues won the domestic double in 2010-11.
The Ivorian's brace, then, must have come as some small measure of vindication for Wenger, who has stuck by Gervinho through thick and thin.
Like he did with Giroud this past weekend, Wenger had protected Gervinho last spring when the forward had come back from the African Cup of Nations broken from a crippling penalty miss in the final against Zambia.
Now, Gervinho looks reborn. He scored the decisive goal in the 2-1 victory over Montpellier, and is looking thoroughly dangerous getting in behind opposing defenses.
Giroud is obviously a far different player than Gervinho, but one thinks that, with a little bit of time, he will come good. The Frenchman's style is so delightfully nuanced—many forget that he almost scored the goal of the season with an audacious 40-yard chip against Stoke—that his contributions can often go unnoticed, as they did against Montpellier.
"I'm rather pleased with the match," he continued. "We won, we've started off the tournament well, and we're still undefeated this season."
Those last words were particularly telling. Even with Giroud's well-documented difficulty, Arsenal have flown out to a third-place positioning in the league standings, knotted at eight points with Manchester City, whom they face this Sunday.
Wenger might opt to start Gervinho at center forward again, or he might feel that Giroud's presence, and link-up play, could prove the difference against the Citizens.
All told, it would be a perfect opportunity for Giroud to open his account. Facing a side that has pilfered Arsenal's ranks in recent seasons, Wenger would have to savor a small measure of revenge should one of his newest recruits turn decider.
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