03 September 2013

Özil to Giroud: the makings of a world-class striker

The dust has barely settled from the slamming-shut of the transfer-window, and already the accolades are accumulating around Mesut Özil. Although he won't take the field as a Gunner until 14 September at the earliest, he's already drawing favorable comparisons to
club legend Dennis Bergkamp, if only in the sense of already having a reputation for excellent before coming to the club. One wag on twitter joked that he's first signing under Arsène whom we didn't have to look up on youtube. Adding a player of his class, achievements, and stature does more than just destroy Andrei Arshavin's status as the club's most expensive signing; it lays waste to the idea that Arsène won't spend—to the tune of 42 million pounds sterling, almost three times the amount laid out on Arshavin. To have done so on a world-class player, and one who so seems to fit Arsenal's style of way, earns Arsène that much more credit.

Of course, Özil does fit a certain Wenger-esque mold: small, crafty, creative on the ball.... While critics had been howling for a striker and defensive midfielder, it seems odd to sign yet another clever midfielder known for his passing. It's true that the signing does little to address those positions, nor does it do much to address the thinness of the squad in general. However, it's well worth considering how Özil could help Olivier Giroud score this season, repeating a pattern that the Frenchman had established at Montpellier and at Tours before that. For as much as fans may regret the failure to sign Higuain, Suarez, or another top-shelf striker, the signing of Özil might just be enough to vault Giroud towards that category (note that I say "towards" and not "into." Read on).
Consider Giroud's skill-set. According to whoscored.com, Giroud's strength include his strength in the air, having won seven of nine aerial duels against Tottenham (both game highs, according to Orbinho). On the season, he's won 19 of 29 aerial duels. When you combine that with Özil's strengths—set-pieces, crosses, key-passes, according to whoscored.com—we could see a special partnership in the making.

After all, all but one of Giroud's goals for Arsenal in 2012-13 came in the penalty area. What's more, they all came just outside the six-yard box as Giroud latched onto a cross, lob, or through-ball from a team-mate and finished from close range. While many of these goals lack the drama of a thunderous volley, those headers, flicks, and toe-pokes still found the back of the net often enough to see Giroud score 17 goals in 47 appearances across all competitions. This is clearly not enough for a squad with designs on trophies. However, as Giroud looks to settle into and define his role more clearly, he already looks like he'll score more often while also increasing his conversion-rate, a woeful 12% during the 2012-13 campaign. Then again, how many shots did he send soaring into the cheap seats because he was pressing too hard? It will be interesting to see how that conversion-rate might change under less pressure and with more frequent crosses, lobs, and through-balls from Özil, widely considered to be among the best in the world at his position.

Over the next 12 days or so, the time between now and Arsenal's trip to the Stadium of Light, Özil and Giroud should find plenty of time to work together, learning to read each other, assess each other's strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, and forge a mutual understanding that could bear fruit. At the risk of engaging in too much schadenfreude, it will be interesting to see how Gonzalo Higuaín or Karim Benzema, two other Arsenal targets, will fare without Özil's service. At various points, the bid for Higuaín had been criticized because Higuaín's skill-set was apparently too similar to Giroud's. If that is true, we might see Higuaín's stats slump while Giroud's stats surge. Arsenal's fans might have gnashed their teeth and rent garments when they saw that Napoli had signed Higuaín, but the signing of Özil, and his budding partnership with Giroud, could prove to just enough to help them forget all that they thought they had lost.

Özil seems to pick out the just-right pass, whether it's a vertical lob or through-ball that allows the striker to run under and put a shot on frame or whether it's a slanted pass that cuts across the box for a striker to intercept. He's done this time and again, whether the finisher was Ronaldo or Higuaín or Benzema, and Giroud's intelligent movement off the ball suggests that he's already queuing up to receive any variety of passes from Özil. Since he arrived at Real Madrid in 2010, he  has had 47 assists, more than any player in Europe's top-five leagues (thanks again to whoscored.com).

Arsenal may still lack depth up-top, and Giroud may not be quite ready to lead the attack, but the partnership between him and Özil could become something remarkable. The German midfielder can pick the pass; the French striker can send it home. Against lesser opponents, securing an early lead could be enough to see the likes of Yaya Sanogo or Chuba Akpom come on to ply their wares. It's a far-fetched notion, but Gooners could fare far worse.

Looking down the road, Arsenal goes into the January transfer-window with a fair amount of money in hand; by then, the squad will have passed through the gauntlet that is December, jam-packed with difficult Prem fixtures, not to mention league cup and Champions League ties to boot. By that point, we'll have a clearer sense of the club's ambitions and achievements, and we could well see another significant signing or two, sussed out on the club's progress or struggles to that point. I daresay that messieur Giroud and Herr Özil, among others, shall have done enough to entice another player or two to come to the Emirates.