19 March 2014

Per and Olivier, polar opposites on and off the pitch.

They play at opposite ends of the pitch, obviously, but it would be hard to find two players further apart in fan's hearts. At one end, the Big Friendly German—I think that's what BFG stands for—seems to inspire unanimous praise, even adulation for his performance and his passion. At the other, the Handsome Feckless Frenchman, if that can stand in as a nickname, seems to inspire little more than eye-rolls if a not a volley of curse-words too voluminous and vile to list out here.  The first man seems to succeed, even thrive, despite his limitations; the second seems defined if not cursed by his own.

Mertesacker, for better or for worse, has found a role on the pitch that allows him to maximize his strengths, namely, positional awareness and height. More to the point, though, he can hide his limitations while playing alongside Laurent Koscielny, mopping up after the more-aggressive, quicker Frenchman if ball or man do ever elude him. There's a bit of safety in that role, not that this is a knock against Per for playing it well. After all, he's shown that he's more than capable of finding a short burst of speed in order to make a last-ditch tackle, and he's also adept at waiting on an approaching dribbler in order to step in and poke the ball away. However, he's also benefitted from an extraordinary amount of stability in the players around him—only occasional rotations of Monreal and Gibbs, Fabianski and Szczesny, and even less of Sagna and Jenkinson. Yes, there's been heavier rotation in front of him, with Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Rosický, among others, taking turns in the defensive midfield. The upshot of that stability is that it provides Per with a fair degree of stability, organization, and familiarity, something that he and others have hailed as central to the defensive solidity that have underpinned Arsenal's successes to this point. There's more, but we'll come back to that in a minute.

Giroud, by contrast, has struggled as much for what he is as for what he's not. He's not a 25-30 goals-per-season scorer, at least not at this level, and his bouts of futility in front of goal seem only to highlight the gap between him and those who have filled the position in years past. He is (or has become) a workhorse, and his tireless slogs as a lone striker, tangling with and tying up opposition defenses, must sap his strength and wear him down. He falls victim to the struggles of those behind him. Without service, he can't deliver. However, there’s nowhere for him to hide, really, as he is front and center, and his own failings are therefore highlighted time and again. Each lousy touch, each shot sent wide, again remind us of his limitations. By contrast with the stability that Mertesacker has enjoyed, Giroud has had to continually adapt to an ever-changing array of attacking midfielders—Cazorla, Podolski, Özil, Ramsey, Wilshere, Gnabry, Walcott, Ox, Rosický—such that it's anyone's guess who will support Giroud in any given match. That's bound to cause some confusion, and any delayed decisions mean missed opportunities. That confusion seems to compound some of Giroud's limitations; he's not the quickest, nor is his passing as crisp as it could be, and, of course, his finishing leaves so much to be desired. However, as with Per, there's more.

There's the passion. Giroud shows it...at times, such as when he or a teammate scores. However, the enduring image many of us have of him, the first one that comes to mind, is of him beseeching the heavens after again fluffing a shot, hands clasped behind his head or pressed together in front of his mouth as if in prayer. There seems to be little in between this regret and that rejoicing. Per, however, shows passion and intensity. Of course, his own post-goal celebrations have been intense or exuberant, but it's when other issues arise that we learn more about his character, whether it's berating Özil after the debacle at the Etihad, fulminating against Cazorla for giving the ball away against Aston Villa, or charging over to Sherwood after he threw the ball at Sagna, to name just a few. In short, Per seems to have embraced being a Gunner and, despite bumpy moments of his own in his first two seasons with the club, has become a fan-favorite. Part of this is performance, of course, but a larger part is the passion that Per exudes. Giroud, signed a year after Per, might feel a similar passion but hasn't had as many occasions to show it. After all, one can't rightly spurn chances and then turn on teammates who do the same or who eschew passes to him, not until he can more-consistently put shots on target, if not in the back of the net.

At 29 and unlikely to get any faster, Per may have only two or three years of top-flight football left in him, but I'd wager that more Gooners than not would love to see him stay. At 27 and unlikely to get any handsomer, Giroud might have six of seven years of footballing ahead of him, but you'd be hard-pressed to many Gooners pledging their devotions to him. After all, we've already seen Arsène avidly shopping for replacement strikers. There's been talk of finding another center-back, but this has felt more like reinforcement than replacement.

Time is running down on the season. Per seems to have found a place in our hearts, but it's not too late for Giroud to join in as well. Of the eleven goals we've scored in our last five matches, he's had a hand (or foot, I guess) in five of them, with four goals and an assist. If he can end the season as he began it, all will be forgiven. Well, most of it anyway.