28 September 2015

Arsenal have found their striker in this £7.4m signing...

It would be a bit churlish of me to complain after a a week in which we scored seven goals in two matchs, ousting Tottenham in the process, but it does seem like we should preface all that follows with a few caveats. One: Tottenham did field an XI that was less than full strength. Even if we did the same, our XI was still full of first-teamers with no Academy players to be seen unless you scanned the bench. Two: Leicester live and die by the sword. Their matches are turning into free-for-alls. They lead the league on goals scored (15) and are second in goals conceded (14). Still, there's some relief if not insight to be found going forward as we prepare for Olympiacos on Tuesday and Man U on Saturday.

I've long resisted the idea that Theo can play through the middle, believing that his mindset and skillset are best suited to playing on the wing. He's fast and can be one of our most-clinical finishers, but what happens when we run up against a parked bus? What impact would he have against the likes of Chelsea? The larger concern that Chelsea presents is one that a number of other squads can present even if they don't hunker down to the degree that Chelsea does: large, physical centre-backs. Those are practically a dime a dozen. Surely, against them, the burlier Giroud would be the preferred option. After all, conventional wisdom suggests that he could keep the Cahills and Olssons of the world busy while our flittier types, erm, flit about in the wide-open prairies Giroud creates for them.

The gaping hole in this wisdom is that Giroud is not particularly physical. Yes, he gets in the trenches and does his level-best, but it's not quite enough to disrupt defenses to the point that Alexis or Walcott can exploit the spaces Giroud ostensibly creates. I'm hardly suggesting that he sink down to Costa-esque levels, but his down-and-dirty does leave much to be desired. His hold-up play is considerable, but it seems to undermine the skills of quite a few others in the squad.

With Giroud on the pitch, there's a bit of a paradox: defenses know that he's not a counter-attacking threat because he lacks pace, and even if we send a ball forward for him to lay off to runners, there's time enough to get defenders behind the ball. We see higher lines but can't exploit them. At a deeper level, I worry that Giroud as a target-man reduces us a bit to a team that hoofs it forward and hopes for the best. That approach can work, but it doesn't play to the skills that we have in the squad. When you have the likes of Özil and Cazorla passing to Alexis and Walcott, speed is of the essence. At a risk of sounding dismissive, Giroud is a middle-man, the one who receives a pass from Özil or Cazorla and lays it off to pacier, more-clinical finishers. Cut him out of the process, and we could se a far-more fluid and dynamic attack, such as what we saw against Leicester (remember the caveats).

Leicester are a brave, reckless bunch, and so we should be wary of drawing deeper conclusions from a match in which we scored five. However, it's worth mentioning that, early in the match and having seized the lead, the Foxes offered us a chance and we seized it. Instead of dropping deeper to defend that lead, their defense pressed higher up and exposed themselves to a quicksilver counter, with Alexis finding Cazorla, who threaded a pass to Walcott, who burst forward to score. If that were his only impact on the match, we could pick up the prayer-books and go home. However, for the second goal, Walcott's run to the near-post dragged two if not three defenders, creating space behind him for Alexis to pounce.

Giroud, even at his most-dangerous, doesn't discombobulate defenses to that same degree. At his best, he disrupts one or two defenders (usually the centre-backs), but that's all she wrote. Throw Walcott on, and that entire back-line is on notice. Clubs that rely on their wide defenders getting forward can no longer do so. The supply of large and mobile defenders is precious, and wide defenders and defensive midfielders accustomed to bombing forward will have to be more mindful of the threat that Theo poses.

More importantly, though, if only because we can't always prepare for how the opposition will set up or play, is how our own squad adjusts to playing with Theo. For the last three seasons, we've depended on Giroud as the putative linch-pin that gives us structure. Along the way, our entire attack has come to depend on a striker whose skill-set is, shall we say, specific (code: limited). While it's gotten us through, more or less, I don't think anyone among us would proclaim that Giroud is the striker who can deliver us to the promised land.

Instead of that linch-pin, which could just as well be labelled a stick in the mud, we could see a more-incisvie attack in which Theo and Alexis are relentlessly stretching defenses out of shape, running on to through-balls sent ahead by Özil and Cazorla, and showing us what it means to finish.

Even if we can't count on opponents playing as naively as Leicester does, there's still something in this to suggest that, in Theo, we've had all along the striker we've been seeking.