Arsenal: How the Gunners Can Get the Best Out of Olivier Giroud
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The departure of Robin van Persie has not been nearly as painful as it could have been. New boys Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla have combined for six goals in the opening 10 games of the season, while supposed wingers Gervinho and Theo Walcott have netted nine times between them.
Gervinho's transition into a central striking role has paid dividends, but it remains to be seen whether his spotty finishing can keep up with his intelligent movement and rapid pace.
The arrival of Frenchman Olivier Giroud over the summer was met with some ambivalence, as the 26-year-old is, like past and present teammate Laurent Koscielny, something of a late bloomer, with only 33 Ligue 1 goals to his name.
Giroud has played a part in each of Arsenal's games thus far, having featured in five games as a starter and five as a substitute, earning two goals and four assists along the way.
His last performance away at West Ham was arguably his finest in an Arsenal jersey, as he started and finished the move that led to his first Premier League goal, and Arsenal's equalizer. Pivoting at the circle in West Ham's half, the Frenchman strode across the pitch, angling a ball into the path of Podolski, who returned a lovely ball for the onrushing Giroud to poke past goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen from close range.
The striker looked far more composed than when he started the season at home to Sunderland. His intelligent movement, married with deceptive pace for someone standing 6'4" tall, was excellent to see. He also seems to have developed an on-field understanding with the diminutive Cazorla, as the Spaniard has supplied multiple reverse passes resulting in goal-scoring opportunities.
Of particular note is Giroud's vision and passing. Unlike Gervinho, who never looks particularly comfortable as a provider, the Frenchman's distribution not only played a part in the buildup to Arsenal's first goal, but was crucial to the second.
The former Montpellier man played a ball into the galloping feet of Walcott, splitting the defense, and allowing the out-of-favor English winger-cum-striker to take one touch before dispatching past Jaaskelainen for the match winner.
While Giroud does not possess the acceleration or outright speed of the Ivorian Gervinho, he appears to be the better all-around player. A single, albeit excellent performance does not necessarily guarantee Giroud a starting berth in the Gunners' front three, though. How can Arsene Wenger maximize the French international's talent?
Speed on the wings
Wenger has been keen to make use of players outside of their traditional positions this season. Gervinho has been shifted centrally from the wing, Podolski is playing on the left as opposed to his preferred central position, and Aaron Ramsey, the now former captain of Wales, has recently been bumped from central midfield out to the right wing. Curious.
Ramsey's move is hardly conventional, but he has taken to it well, despite initial reservations. With Giroud on the field, however, speed and finishing ability are needed from those flanking him, neither of which are particular strong suits for the young Welshman.
In Walcott, Gervinho, Podolski and England youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Gunners' squad is replete with wingers possessing both qualities. It should be irrelevant if Giroud ends the season with 10 goals and 10 assists in the league.
While casual observers might prefer to see him end his first season with 20 goals and zero assists, his qualities as finisher and distributor make him a potentially more dangerous quantity for opposition defenses than fellow front man Gervinho, or, if he gets his way, Walcott.
Support from Cazorla and the wingers
Having a forward with the approximate size of Nicklas Bendtner (short of ego...) is not necessarily a boon for a squad renowned for its passing and movement.
Giroud can, and to some extent has, operated as a target man thus far for the Gunners. Strong both in the air and to hold up play as his teammates pour forward, he has at times cut a lonely figure in Wenger's 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 formation.
Cazorla and the wingers must try to play closely with the striker when the team counterattacks. Having a target man who can distribute is all well and good, but Arsenal's No. 12 does his best work when running towards goal, not with his back to it.
If Giroud can build a solid spatial understanding with the Spaniard in the middle third of the field, the Gunners' counterattacks will be difficult to defend thanks to the speed on offer out wide.
Sharing game time with Gervinho
As counterintuitive as it may sound, Giroud will develop more quickly if he only starts occasionally.
He has acclimated himself relatively quickly in the Premier League, but the Frenchman is not yet ready to bear the onus of leading the Arsenal line on a regular basis. It would not surprise me if Gervinho continues to be started centrally in league games.
This lack of perceived pressure will be hugely beneficial, however. It's clear that the former Montpellier forward has a great deal of talent, and could have an even greater upside in the next year or two.
But to ensure that Giroud does not emulate Marouane Chamakh, a fellow Ligue 1 import who enjoyed a strong start to his Arsenal career only to see his confidence and game time nosedive, it is crucial that he see continued time on the field.
It is unclear who will lead the line for the Gunners going forward. Gervinho and Giroud will almost certainly share time in the near future. It remains to be seen whether the Ivory Coast international can hone his finishing and defensive work rate to make the spot his, or if Giroud can consistently reproduce, and build on, his performance against West Ham this past weekend.
This is to say nothing of winger Theo Walcott, who is Arsenal's second-highest goalscorer having netted four times thus far in the campaign. The contract rebel looks worthy of a starting spot, and in the light of his recent form in front of goal, it's hard to argue that his wish to play through the middle should not be granted.
Wenger faces quite the selection dilemma, for while he no longer has a world-class, automatic starter up front, the Alsatian has three (arguably four, when including Podolski) players who can find the back of the net with some regularity.
As I see it, neither Gervinho nor Walcott possess the intelligence or passing ability of Giroud. In the short term, the wiry sprinters may well produce the goals that will allow the Gunners to keep pace in the league and in Europe.
Come next spring, though, don't be surprised when Olivier Giroud is not only Arsenal's starting centre-forward, but the primary reason the North London side will be challenging for the Premier League title.
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