Arsenal center forward Olivier Giroud received widespread condemnation for his performance in the club's 3-1 home Champions League defeat to Monaco. The criticism wasn't entirely unwarranted: Giroud had misfired on six shots, failed to complete eight of his 18 passes, and went off defeated midway through the second half.
The interesting development wasn't Giroud's failure in that match; it was his response. When manager Arsène Wenger trusted Giroud with a starting spot four days after the Monaco loss, he scored Arsenal's crucial opening goal against Everton. He did the same three days after that against Queen's Park Rangers.
"He's strong mentally," Wenger said of his compatriot after Wednesday's match. "He can take some criticism and respond. He's shown that. I feel it was a bit harsh for him because he missed some chances. That can happen."
This fortitude, which few people outside professional athletic circles can comprehend, may make Giroud the ideal Arsenal striker from a psychological perspective.
How to stand tall in a storm
Center forwards at Arsenal are lightning rods. Fans, pundits, and other observers see the shortcomings of the leader of the team's attacking line and use that criticism to bash Wenger. There are three main reasons for this:
- Many watch football for the exploits of goal scorers
- The model of the Arsenal striker was established and perfected by Thierry Henry
- The "value-oriented" approach to player acquisition has been most obvious in pursuit of strikers
Until the summer of 2014, when the dearth of world-class central defenders drove the price of David Luiz to £50 million, acquiring an elite forward was the transaction most subject to the irrational forces of the player transfer market. (I wrote about this last summer in "Who Is This Mythical Arsenal Striker?") It just wasn't possible to get the services of a proven goalscorer for the prices Arsenal have been able or willing to pay. Arsenal supporters bemoaned this reality and its implications for their club's standing among the elites.
These laments, of course, conveniently overlook the status of Henry when Arsenal bought him from Juventus. Although the club paid a record £11 million to acquire him in 1999, Henry had only scored three goals in one season at Juventus and a total of 28 in five previous seasons with Monaco.
Yet he emerged as the top striker of the Premier League era and the ideal in that position among Arsenal supporters--the thin, fast, cool, smart, and lethal predator. That became the aesthetic expectation.
Giroud, much like the Henry of 1999, does not meet this expectation. However, his mental makeup appears to equip him perfectly for the current football culture. He is confident but not so confident that he doesn't recognize the need to improve, particularly in the face of direct competition from newcomer Danny Welbeck. He acknowledges criticism but does not let it paralyze him. And he risks failure to achieve success. (Without engaging in too much armchair psychoanalysis here, I must note that Giroud's handsomeness might be an asset in all these respects.)
Improvements in skill and instinct
Many have analyzed Giroud's awareness, strength, and touch and have deemed him vital to Arsenal's style of play. Without those attributes, the skillful attacking play of Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, and Tomas Rosicky and the speed of Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott, Welbeck, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain lack a foundation. His three-month absence due to injury in the second Premier League match of the season coincided with the team's most tentative offensive displays.
Since his return in late November, Giroud has shown newly keen instincts in front of goal, finding or creating space in crowded areas and scoring timely goals. His savvy is a major reason that Arsenal's performance on set pieces has improved so dramatically: Through 28 matches, Arsenal have scored 10 goals from free kicks and corners this season, compared with eight all of last season. (From Squawka.com's Team Rankings)
We saw this contribution on his goal against Everton. As his teammate Gabriel ran toward the near post, Giroud pulled back into the space Gabriel and his marker Gareth Barry had vacated, just slipping away from Everton defender John Stones. Giroud then caught Özil's cross on the volley with his weaker right foot and directed it into the far corner of the net.
Against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup, Giroud spotted empty space at the near post, a frequent hunting ground for him, darted toward it and volleyed Alexis's quickly taken corner into the net with his left foot. He was also expertly positioned to prod home a rebound against Crystal Palace and a blocked shot against QPR.
These four recent Giroud goals indicate a varied approach, an important quality that prevents defenders from predicting the location or timing of the danger he poses.
Numbers among the best
As a result, Giroud has emerged as one of the top strikers in the Premier League. He's not the absolute best, as Henry was, but he is competitive with other widely lauded forwards. The stats below from OptaSports via whoscored.com provide evidence of Giroud's growing stature:
He's fractionally behind Manchester City's Sergio Aguero and Chelsea's Diego Costa in goals per 90 minutes and level with Tottenham's Harry Kane, while scoring more from fewer shots than all of them except Costa.
These aren't the numbers of the worthless lug many Arsenal supporters have portrayed Giroud to be. Instead, Giroud appears to be making remarkable progress. His goal production per 90 minutes was 0.4 in his first Arsenal season and improved only slightly to 0.5 in 2013-14. Those came from 4.1 and 3.3 shots per 90 minutes, respectively.
His current 0.8 goals per 90 minutes ratio would, over the course of a full season, amount to something in the neighborhood of 30 goals. Although we should be wary of projecting a full season's performance from one particularly productive period, it's possible that Giroud is becoming the perfect combination of mentality and skill to lead the Arsenal line.