22 July 2014

Building a team around Giroud? Really?

I thought it would be worth taking a break around transfer-speculation to assess something that offers a little more substance, at least at a level that allows us to examine what we currently have and what it's good for. Already, we've done a nice bit of business in the transfer-window, with Alexis and Debuchy in the squad and with Ospina apparently close to confirmed. By Arsenal standards, that's an orgy of spending, even if the total amount comes to something less under £50m—even if that's less than what Chelsea or Real Madrid or the other remorseless, soulless spenders might splurge on one player. With Man City apparently satiated by Sagna and Liverpool repeating Spurs' saga from a season ago, we and Chelsea look to be the most-ambitious thus far. However, it's in how our current squad coalesces than I'm currently most intrigued by, rather than how future additions might contribute.

The Alexis-honeymoon has apparently already ended, and he's yet to play a minute. For as ravenous as we are for an out-and-out striker, I suppose that's to be expected. Yes, the Chilean can play as a striker, but most of his experience comes as a winger. As such, the more-impatient among us continue to clamor for a genuine striker, perhaps deriding who we currently have a bit unfairly. To borrow one of my country's former presidents's malapropisms, we misunderestimate Giroud. That is, we underestimate him in the wrong way.

Ever since Henry left, we've craved a similar forward, someone who can seemingly conjure goals from nothing as Henry did (and as Wright, to a lesser extent, did before him). The tantalizing glimpses that van Persie offered before erupting in one glorious season before departing only gave that hunger a sharper edge, honed that much more by the ongoing trophy-drought. If only we could have kept van Persie one more season, he might have delivered a similarly glorious season, propelling Arsenal and not Man U to the Prem title. Olivier Giroud was charged with filling the gaping hole, and all too often, he's come up short.

However, this is perhaps because we expect him to deliver 25 to 30 goals per season, something that Henry did consistently and that van Persie only did once. We've been conditioned to expect that kind of production from our forward, which makes Giroud's failure to deliver all the more glaring—and galling. Each time he misses, whiffs, or otherwise muffs the kind of shot another striker might put home or at least on frame, we're reminded of just how far Giroud falls short of the bar set by Henry. Let Giroud be the first and last to suffer by that comparison. This is what I mean by misunderestimating him, though. By focusing so exclusively on Giroud's goal-scoring struggles, we risk downgrading him in the wrong area. We may never see Giroud score goals at the rate that Henry so regularly achieved and that van Persie achieved for us—for one season. We may, however, seem him deliver key-passes and assists with a frequency that might allow Alexis or Walcott or Ramsey—or two of three, if not all three—score 20 Prem goals. It's not far-fetched.

Over the last two seasons, Giroud seems to have struggled with his role. Is he to be the kind of goal-scoring machine that van Persie was in 2011-12, or is he to be the kind of chance-creator that Bergkamp was for most of his eleven seasons? Giroud is by no means in Bergkamp's class when it comes to touch or technique. However, Giroud's skill-set seems to suggest that his biggest contribution to our squad in the upcoming season will not come through the goals he scores but the chances he creates for others. With Alexis,Walcott, Cazorla, Özil, Ramsey, and other buzzing around him, Giroud offers the kind of brute strength needed to occupy burlier center-backs and other defenders while the pacier, creative types flit past and run onto the second-balls and flick-ons that he creates. Indeed, we might even see an Arsenal that is willing to allow opponents to press further up the pitch, rather that pushing them deeper into their own defensive third, if only to allow Giroud to receive a clearance at or around midfield and then release Alexis, Walcott, the Ox, or others into space behind the defense and use their blistering pace to punish.

Van Persie, for all of his glorious goals, papered over a squad that was shorn of identity and direction after Fàbregas left. The squad that had been built around Fàbregas didn't know what else to do but give the ball to van Persie and let him do what he did. That habit continued after van Persie left, even if it didn't play to Giroud's abilities. With two seasons at Arsenal under his belt, I'm willing to bet that Giroud is ready to define himself and his role, not as the club's next great scorer, but as one more component in a more-complete squad, one in which a healthy Ramsey, Wilshere, Walcott, Ox, Cazorla, Podolski, and Diaby can run amok and rotate, in which Özil, Alexis, and Debuchy can get acclimated, and in which another player or two can contribute as well.

As we've seen with others, the transfer-fees for goal-scoring strikers frequently flirts with nine figures. With a transfer-kitty that we've boasted of being £105,000,000 or thereabouts, which would you rather have, one player who might score 25 goals, or four players who address other weaknesses in the squad? We're still shy a player or two of the second option, but I prefer the idea of a complete squad over one that depends excessively on one player to score all of its goals.