Olivier Giroud, master of the wall pass, makes Arsenal play

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Olivier Giroud fell to the floor and put his hands to his face. When he took them away, his face revealed a look of great anguish. Of course, the cameras caught it all and with the rain falling heavily, his body drenched, there was even a homoerotic quality about it. For Arsenal fans, it’s become an all too familiar sight; presented with a golden opportunity at key moments in a given game – against Chelsea it was at 0-0, the contest evenly poised, and against Everton (1-1), practically the last kick of the game – Giroud has failed to deliver.

Giroud’s reactions after he misses are almost always the same; he writhes like an animal hit by a tranquiliser dart, after huffing and puffing all game waiting for such a chance to fall his way. To be fair, the two opportunities mentioned were not easy chances by any stretch; against Chelsea, the skiddy surface meant it was always going to be difficult to hit the ball cleanly. But a striker at the peak of his confidence would probably put it away anyway. And his last minute shot against Everton was even harder and it would have been a spectacular outcome had Giroud scored but the ball agonisingly clipped the crossbar instead of dipping underneath.

In the most recent match against West Ham United, Giroud had one glorious chance which he dragged wide. This time he swiped at the turf in frustration. Then, there were two crosses that evaded him, yet, rather than take the hint that Giroud was having a hapless game, Arsenal continued playing the ball up to him. And he kept on returning the ball back to them. Perfectly. That was something he couldn’t miss.

This is generally how Arsenal have used Giroud. Rather than finishing moves, or even acting as a target-man to get onto the end of crosses, Giroud is best as a pivot to bounce passes off. The goal he created against West Ham United – Arsenal’s third in a 3-1 win – shows his importance to the side in a deceptively simple way. The ball was fizzed into Giroud by Theo Walcott; he controlled it, held off his marker and then laid the ball off perfectly for Lukas Podolski to lash home. It’s this ability to bring others into play which is probably why Arsene Wenger has persisted with him for so long (at least, long enough that he doesn’t feel the need to bring another striker in), but it’s also because Giroud’s a big part of his plan for how he wants Arsenal to play.

It started last season, with Arsene Wenger having to remould the side again following the departures of two key players. In previous seasons, the Frenchman’s ability to teambuild has been crippled by want-away stars although this time, Wenger went into the season knowing that this would be the last time it would happen because the Great Darkness over Islington was finally beginning to lift. But his plan really went up a gear on the last day of August 2013 when Mesut Ozil walked through the doors at Arsenal’s London Colney, echoing the first time Dennis Bergkamp set foot inside Highbury’s famous marble hall.

Then, Dennis Bergkamp transformed the culture of the club simply by being different. This time though, Ozil changes Arsenal because he’s just like everybody else in the team – only a little better. His impact has been palpable in the 21 games he’s played so far, scoring 5 goals and creating 9 others. Most notably, though, has been the effect he has made on his team-mates, instilling the self-belief that has been so desperately lacking in recent seasons. Like Bergkamp, the players use Ozi as a “reference”. When he gets on the ball, they know they must provide options for him; they’re now moving into spaces they didn’t before because back then, they weren’t expecting the pass. Each time the players receive the ball from Ozil, it’s like he’s hitting an untapped erogenous zone: “oh, oh, oh!”

Because Ozil is similar to the rest of his team-mates, Arsenal become instantly stronger than they were last season because he reinforces their USP. Think about it this way: if playing against Arsenal was difficult because they pass and move so well, imagine how much harder it’d be with another trickier midfielder in the line-up (who is better than what they have already). As Brian Phillips, writing for Grantland, puts it: “Özil represents Wenger trying to build the most completely fucking Arsenal team this side of Thierry Henry’s 30th birthday.”

Signing Ozil confused people: “Why do they need him? Where would he fit?” they asked. His tactical purpose, though, is alchemical. When others vacate their positions, Ozil slots in meaning that Arsenal always have a zone occupied. He makes the fluidity complete. In the 3-1 win over West Ham, Ozil was instrumental, gliding across the pitch, and combining quickly with team-mates. With Aaron Ramsey pushing up (and later it would be Santi Cazorla assuming the role), Arsenal’s formation transformed into a 4-1-4-1 with Mikel Arteta acting as the base. When Ozil signed, Arsenal went wingerless, but with Theo Walcott providing the depth and the width, there are more options for him to hit. With 8 goalscoring chances created at Upton Park, Ozil’s productivity was Bergkamp-esque but there was one person he found more than anyone else: Giroud.

Frequently Ozil played the ball up to Giroud, either looking for a return or merely just making a run off him to receive the ball from a possible lay-off. It’s not just Ozil; others do the same. Podolski loves to play close to Giroud because he knows he will return the ball back to him. They do that because they know that Giroud, even for a big man, is a deft passer. He has a graceful touch that when it is at its best, is as smooth as Chantilly lace. It helps, though, that Giroud is a big man because it makes him easier to find and that any ball played up to him, he can hold and shield off any opponents. In that sense, Giroud is more similar to Bergkamp than say, Alan Smith who Wenger likened him to. Bergkamp used to implore team-mates to hit the ball up to him, hard if they have to, because he knew he could trap any pass. Giroud, similarly, is targeted by difficult long-balls, as much as the team plays through him with short, simple passes. (Giroud has attempted 98 flick-ons this season, 3rd behind traditional target men, Peter Crouch and Christian Benteke. This also from a side who complete the second fewest long-balls in the league, although it must be said, a lot of Giroud’s flick-on numbers include those with his feet).

There’s an anecdote in Stillness and Speed, Dennis Bergkamp’s “non-autobiography” written by David Winner, where he talks about the wall of his childhood home in Amsterdam where he would endlessly kick the ball back-and-forth, watching the ball come back to him, trapping it and then doing it again but in a different way, and trapping it again. This reminded me of Giroud: if Ozil is the natural heir to Bergkamp, then Giroud is like that wall in Amsterdam that Bergkamp used practice to bouncing passes off – the ball comes back perfect.

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Actually, at this point, it might be helpful to break the piece up and include an excerpt from the book to help understand:

David Winner: I’M TRYING TO picture you aged about eight, kicking a ball against this wall. What would you be thinking?

Dennis: ‘It’s not thinking. It’s doing. And in doing, I find my way. I used the brickwork around the entrance to the building. You see that line of vertical bricks, like a crossbar? Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I found that so interesting! Trying it different ways: first one foot, then the other foot, looking for new things: inside of the foot, outside of the foot, laces . . . getting a sort of rhythm going, speeding it up, slowing it down. Sometimes I’d aim at a certain brick, or at the crossbar. Left  foot, right foot, making the ball spin. Again and again. It was just fun. I was enjoying it. It interested me. Maybe other people wouldn’t bother. Maybe they wouldn’t find it interesting. But I was fascinated. Much later, you could give a pass in a game and you could maybe look back and see: “Oh, wait a minute, I know where that touch comes from.” But as a kid you’re just kicking a ball against the wall. You’re not thinking of a pass. You’re just enjoying the mechanics of it, the pleasure of doing it.

‘Later, I’d say: “With every pass, there needs to be a message or a thought behind it.” But that was there from very early, in my body and in my mind. When I was kicking the ball against the wall I’d be trying to hit a certain brick or trying to control the ball in a certain way. You play around with the possibilities, with bounces, for example. You hit the wall and the ball comes back with one bounce. Then you say, “Let’s try to do it with two bounces,” so you hit it against the wall a little bit softer, a little bit higher. With two bounces, it means probably that both bounces are a little bit higher, so you have to control it again, in a different way. You’re always playing around. I wasn’t obsessed. I was just very intrigued the wall by how the ball moves, how the spin worked, what you could do with spin.

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Giroud’s neat flicks and touches are crucial to the way Arsenal play and it is clear, watching Giroud execute those passes, that he takes immense pride in seeing them find his team-mates. There is a painstaking meticulousness to them that can occasionally frustrate, yet, at the same time; Giroud often sees pictures that others don’t, like his passes last season against SwanseaCity and Montpelier, or most famously, in October, against NorwichCity. To walk through that goal again; Jack Wilshere receives a pass from Santi Cazorla, plays it back to him and continues running to an empty space behind Giroud. He already anticipates the ball will get to him but probably never pictured that it would, the way that it did. Giroud touches the ball to Wilshere who, surprised by the earliness that it reaches him, flicks it back. Giroud, though, is not flinched by the quick pass and instead, flicks the ball aback gain with the outside of his boot through two defenders into the path of Wilshere. The pass was so good that all Wilshere had to do was stick a boot out and the ball rebounded in. It was natural that some Arsenal fans got carried away after that; that type of telepathy, accuracy and instinct develops over time, and it’s not hard to see Giroud’s role in accelerating the type of football that Wenger wants.

As Philippe Auclair tells Arseblog, Giroud “is not just a big guy who is good at holding up the ball with his back to goal. He’s somebody who loves to play with ‘first intention’ as we say in French; somebody who can flick the ball around the corner, is always looking for a quick solution when the tempo of game has to be accelerated. He’s always looking to create something, a creator in the box. It’s something that Arsenal have been lacking for a while.”

Of course, there’s a trade-off and that is Giroud is probably not as clinical in front of goal as a striker in a top club side should be. His movement to get onto the end of chances is also fairly predictable, often making a darting run towards the near post but usually little else. And perhaps, looking beyond his fantastic link-up play, a different type of striker who makes runs across the channels thus stretching play might improve Arsenal’s efficiency even more. But because Giroud can do everything – “physical presence, technique and charisma” Giroud is the “type of striker who is difficult to find nowadays”, Wenger says – it means it carries little risk for a team that is still adapting to each other, still working out each others’ movements. In that sense, Giroud then, acts as a bit of a buffer, lessening the impact of this adjustment period by taking hits for the team as they strive to find better balance and understanding. That’s why Wenger is willing to overlook some of his deficiencies – namely his goalscoring, which fans are understandably less forgiving of – because Giroud makes the team play. (Which begs the question: When Arsenal becomes fully in tune with each other, perhaps then Wenger might be more willing to leave out Giroud than he is at the moment?)

However, that’s not to say Giroud is untouchable in Wenger’s eyes because I’ve not seen a player come under such heavy scrutiny from Wenger in all his time in charge. After Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Montpellier in the Champions League last season, Wenger said that “technically it was not one of his [Giroud’s] best games … sometimes when he doesn’t get the ball enough he wants to come deep. That is not his game. And in a 3-1 comeback against Norwich City towards the end of the campaign, he said “I think he had a very, very average first half,” before adding “and a very, very positive and influential second half.”

Arsenal have practiced a lot on Giroud’s technique, he reveals, on the training ground and in particular, the type of moves we saw regularly against West Ham United and earlier this season. He doesn’t have to make the final pass. Dennis Bergkamp similarly derived great pleasure from making the “pass before the assist. Look at the goal,” he says, “and look at the assist, but most importantly, look at where the attack starts from.” Often Giroud is involved. Even if he’s not, he’s a useful decoy, making runs across defenders to create space elsewhere.

It’s probably best not to view Giroud as your orthodox striker but rather, as an extension of the midfield – although he’s the player who has the biggest responsibility to finish. (“You need more players who can create that special opening and I believe that Europe uses fewer strikers than before,” says Wenger). Certainly, Giroud would love to score more: the pain inflicted by missing a chance is evident in his reactions. But Giroud is determined not to let that put him down: his unique role as a goal-getter as well as a goal-creator is one that he relishes. “Strikers are judged on their goals, he says. “But we must also [provide] assists and that is what I try to do: help my team-mates. It is easy to play with people like Jack, Mesut, Santi or Tomas – all my offensive team-mates. We have good relationships on the pitch and when we play one-touch football, it is a pleasure. We try to do it in every game, and when we succeed it is fantastic.”

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Arsenal’s team of 2000-2010

–         Firstly, as you may have noticed, the decade ended at the start of last year (although some dispute otherwise). So that’s why we’ve aptly renamed the Arsenal XI of the Decade to Arsenal XI from 2000-2010. That’s technically eleven years. We’ve published our matches of the decade last season if you want to take a look.

–         Secondly, we all realise when creating such a list, there will always be a natural bias to the “Invincibles” side of 2003-04. After all, they are the best Arsenal team. Ever. But trophies are not the only measure of success. The clever clogs amongst yourselves will probably say that you wish you knew that before you signed up to Arsene Wenger’s post-Highbury “project” but let’s not be facetious. This XI consists of players who have performed consistently to the Arsenal cause. So no one season wonders – Matheiu Flamini may be the first to enter your mind although he did have two good seasons; the other being an impressive run at the left-back position in the season The Gunners made the Champions League final.

–         In true Arsene Wenger fashion, the players are slotted into a 4-4-2. As ever the wide players are not “prisoners of their position” and that is particularly appropriate once you see who we have at right-midfield. And yes, he has played there for Arsenal.

GK: Jens Lehmann
2003-2008 (147 appearances)

For a while, Lehmann looked like he wouldn’t be considered an Arsenal great. He was part of the unbeaten Arsenal side but was often regarded as the weak link in their success. His frequent calamities were appropriate of a time after David Seaman’s retirement when nothing seemed to be going right between the sticks. But he gradually grew more serene and that, seemingly, was enough to hide his faults. In his defence, Lehmann’s initial troubles in adapting to the league may have been due to European style which encouraged goalkeepers to come off the line as opposed to England, where ‘keepers are chiefly stoppers. But he still made more mistakes than he should have.

That saying, his eccentricities was part of his charm and in a strange way, gave his defence a sense of assurance because they knew he would take responsibility. In particular, he was very assertive at coming out from corner-kicks as this was considered to be Arsenal’s main weakness, the whole in the Death Star if you’d like. His penalty save against Villarreal in the Champions League semi-final stands out as his greatest individual moment but he just as quickly ruined it all in the final. With 18 minutes played, Lehmann, all too predictably rushed out at the feet of Samuel Eto’o to earn himself a red-card and leave Arsenal having to fend off Barcelona with ten-man: Mission impossible almost. Still, despite the attendant rashness, he was a class goalkeeper and during Arsenal’s 2006 Champions League run, he was Europe’s best goalkeeper at that point, going 853 minutes without conceding a goal. A record that still stands today.

RB: Bakary Sagna
2007-present (118 appearances)

He’s not even Arsenal most successful right-back; Emmanuel Eboue is ahead of him if finals and trophies are a measure of success. That honour goes to Lauren. But he IS Arsenal’s best right-back and for that reason, Bakary Sagna deserves his place in the eleven.

Sagna was a relative unknown when he signed in 2007 and there were doubts about whether the side needed him. Eboue was there. But he soon dispelled such reservations with a rapid transition as the league’s best right-back in his debut season. Defensively, he is at his best but despite his forward limitations, Sagna keeps going. And going. And going. To be fair to him, he has improved in his delivery, making five assists last season but his value is that he remains as reliable at the back as ever.

CB: Sol Campbell
2001-2006 (135 appearances), 2009-2010 (11 appearances)

Crossed the short North London divide amid much controversy and found immediate success with a League and Cup double in his first season. Sol Campbell was just the powerhouse defender Arsenal since Tony Adams and Martin Keown were already queueing up to pick up their pensions. Luckily for The Gunners, Campbell had let his contract at Tottenham run out and as the rules of the Bosman Transfer state, he was free to leave for any club he desired. He chose Arsenal and never looked back. A goal in the Champions League final was scored in a losing cause but ultimately got what he craved for with the move: trophies and European football. He was a rock and Arsenal evidently looked weaker without him, effectively conceding the 2002-03 title due to his absence through injury. But he was there when Arsenal won the championship in 2004 and at what better place to seal the glory than at Tottenham’s ground. The metaphorical middle finger was well and truly up.

Campbell returned to the club for one more season in October 2009 and was never once exposed by the high-line they played, even at the age of 35. We are, however, going to overlook him absconding like a baby from Highbury at half-time after a horror show against West Ham which sandwiched between his two times at the club. Probably a trait he learnt at Spurs.

CB: Kolo Toure
2002-2009 (226 appearances)

In his first season at Arsenal, Kolo Toure looked like an excitable puppy and sure enough, Wenger let him play in such a way. He was frequently let off the leash as a substitute, usually on the right of midfield but sometimes at right-back and he just kept running and running. Somehow, Wenger was able to channel that energy and Toure established himself as a defender of great maturity. He developed a solid partnership with Sol Campbell, helping Arsenal to that fabled unbeaten season as a ball-playing, adventurous centre-back.

LB: Ashley Cole
1998-2006 (156 appearances)

Left the club in acrimonious circumstances but he did so, unlike many, as the world’s best in his position. However, Ashley Cole almost never made it Arsenal. Having been sent out on loan to Crystal Palace as a youngster, he was called back after Sylvinho was unable to get his work-permit renewed and forcibly, was elevated to the first-team. Cole snatched at the opportunity like a tramp on a loose bag of chips and made the role his own. Marauding up-and-down the left flank, he was Arsenal’s answer to Roberto Carlos and ensured the left-back role wasn’t just a secondary position. His goal against Aston Villa remains one the club’s best team goals highlighting just how deadly the full-back can be in the modern game. Defensively, he was just as good and Arsenal fans perhaps, still take pride in the fact that he is one of the few that can stop Cristiano Ronaldo and we just as much cheered whenTheo Walcott tore him a new one in the recent 3-1 win. Cole may have been a problem child and a naughty boy but he was our problem child and naughty boy.

RM (sort of): Cesc Fabregas
2003-present (201 appearances)

Cesc Fabregas seemingly encapsulates what Arsenal is about since the “Invincibles” team broke up. Skilful, spontaneous and confident in possession – the type of player that makes Arsenal a joy to watch – but letting him mature without the presence of such big name players left a bit of fragility in him that can occasionally frustrate. Indeed, that is the argument some have made against Wenger’s handling of the transition. That the youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and swagger in possession – have effectively taken over the team. And the other qualities that made them great – ruthlessness, power, organisation and experience – have been seen as an after-thought.

But that also displays the delicacy of the project the team has embarked upon and this season, we are finally starting to see it bear fruit. Cesc Fabregas has been influential, even when he is absent through injury, and in past seasons, has almost single-handedly carried the team forward. Fabregas sees things that others don’t and plays the through pass as if it was his first step as a baby. Last season, he made 13 assists, a fantastic feat which is made the more amazing considering he scored 15 goals also. He is more robust now and direct – as shown by his impact in the 2010 World Cup finals and Euro 2008, regularly coming off the bench to change his country’s flow from the lateral to the dynamic. We have done a whole analysis of his time at Arsenal so head over and read it there, because frankly, we can write so much more about the talismanic midfielder.

In this list, Fabregas comes in right midfield, a position he has not played since his first full season in the senior side. It’s probably fair to say we can all agree he deserves his spot in this XI but where to put him considering the rest of the players to come? Right-midfield adds balance to the side and because he is such a genius, you can bet on him to make a great impact from the position.

CM: Gilberto Silva
2002-2008 (170 appearances)

Gilberto Silva’s brilliance was his simplicity. Initially he couldn’t stop scoring which, rather prematurely, because of his late runs, drew comparisons with Fredrik Ljungberg but that just underlined his underrated all-round ability. He soon settled, however, and became the wise head in midfield who kept the side ticking with his get and give efficiency.

The fact that Gilberto came into a winning side on the back of a World Cup triumph helped him settle and he was a key component in the “Invincibles” side. His altruistic style was needed most when Patrick Vieira departed and the midfield needed a composed figure to guide them forward. Gilberto rose to the occasion and was the glue that held the structure together as Arsenal agonisingly lost to Barcelona 2-1 in the Champions League final. Wenger summed up his value to the team best when he said: “what I like was the fact that he kept things simple. He can play all across the midfield but the holding role just in front of the defence is what he does best.”

CM: Patrick Vieira (Captain)
1996-2005 (279 appearances)

Put simply, Patrick Vieira was a monster of a specimen when he first set foot in the Premiership. He was a player of great physical presence but one who could also match that with an unerring technique and lung bursting stamina. Such traits allowed him to dominate the league for the remaining years and he was the driving force of the Arsenal team from the heart of midfield. Vieira’s success lent itself to a spate of imitators looking to recreate a similar profile of the player, some successful, others not so, such as Manchester United’s Eric Djamba-Djemba.

Injuries and speculation about his future perhaps limited his influence in the later years but was still impressive when he did play. He captained The Gunners to their historic unbeaten triumph, scoring the goal that sealed the title.

LM: Robert Pires
2000-2006 (189 appearances)

It may be difficult to fathom now that Thierry Henry had ever taken a backseat to any such attacking player during his eight years at the club but in the 2001-02 season, he did. To Robert Pires. Pires looked uncomfortable in the way he ran with the ball but there was something poetic about the way he moved. His hair swishing up and down against the wind; his arms almost stiff when running as if to ensure the maximum balance and he took ever so timid steps with the ball at his feet. For that one season, Pires was perhaps the best player in the world but that season was also prematurely hacked down to size in March against Newcastle. That didn’t stop him, however, scooping the PFA player of the year award and the way his team-mates acknowledged his contribution to the title win by smiling gleefully at the player on the podium, spoke louder than words ever could. Pires scored an amazing 62 league goals from left midfield, a thought unthinkable to some at that time and reinvented, on the face of it, the simple position of the winger.

CF: Dennis Bergkamp
1995-2006 (316 appearances)

You’d have to be Groundskeeper Willie to conclusively prove Dennis Bergkamp’s intention in video form when scoring Arsenal’s greatest goal ever, but at 5 seconds in in video clip, we can attest the only space he could have exploited was to the left of him. His finish in the 2-0 win against Newcastle was labelled a fluke by some but only a genius could have produced a goal when there looked like there was nothing on. Somehow he manufactured the space to turn past Nikos Dabizas with a balletic pirouette before slotting past Shay Given.

It was this type of operational mastery that set the Dutchman apart and his spacial awareness ensured he was at the hub of most of Arsenal attacks in their most successful era. His contribution to Arsenal’s 7-0 win over Everton once again highlights that vision and particularly the third goal. As we pick it up, we see Bergkamp running into the space in front of the box but as the ball reaches him, he is instantly surrounded by four defenders. However, with one flick of the boot, he cuts open the defence and frees Patrick Vieira to chip home. His ability to squeeze and double the size of the pitch set him apart in a generation.

No player in the Premier League era has given as much visceral joy as Dennis Bergkamp. Here was a player who always seemed a step ahead of his opponents and perhaps the only player in the world whose brain was conjoined to his right boot.

CF: Thierry Henry
1999-2007 (254 appearances)

2000-01: 17 goals, 7 assists. 2001-02: 24 goals, five assists. 2002-03: 24 goals, 23 assists. 2003-04: 30 goals, 8 assists. 2004:05: 25 goals, 14 assists. 2005-06: 27 goals, 6 assists. 2006-07: 10 goals, 4 assists.

Thierry Henry may have been Arsenal’s greatest individual player but the statistics paint him as one of the best team players also. Amazingly, he never quite got the European recognition he deserved despite scoring a hat-trick against both Inter and Roma in 5-1 and 3-1 wins respectively, and both in away matches. And let’s not forget the way he tore apart Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu with a terrific solo goal on the run to the final. [EDIT] Henry has actually been named in UEFA.com’s team of the year a five times but a podium finish is perhaps scant consolation for a brilliant goalscorer – yes – but also a supreme team player.

In his pomp, he was a stallion of a striker. Gracefully fast and explosive in front of goal, Henry terrified defenders with the ball at his feet. He ended as Arsenal’s highest ever goalscorer with 226 goals in 380 appearances. A phenomenal feat from a phenomenal player.

Honourable mentions: Lauren (2000-2007 – 159 appearances), Fredrik Ljungberg (1998–2007 – 216 appearances), Silvain Wiltord (2000-2004 – 104 appearances).

And finally, a wholly irrelevant XI but one that reserves a special place in your memory. (Romantic XI): Lehmann; Luzhny, Campbell, Gallas, Cole; Hleb, Fabregas, Edu, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry