In football it’s all about horses for courses.
At Arsenal we have been privileged to have some very fine-fettled four-legged friends over the years.
Elegant racing thoroughbreds (Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp); tough old warhorses (Tony Adams, Frank McLintock); exuberant, untameable broncos (Ian Wright, Charlie Nicholas); even sprightly little Shetland Ponies (Santi Cazorla springs to mind).
We’ve had our show ponies too, prancing around with bows in their hair and not doing much else (yes David Bentley and Samir Nasri, I’m thinking of you).
Even a carthorse or two (you can decide).
But watching Olivier Giroud’s performance against a good Southampton side on Saturday put me in mind of the Jethro Tull song “Heavy Horses”.
The song (off the album of the same name) is an ode to the mighty shire horses, those statuesque, powerful beasts with thick manes and hair-covered hooves that once pulled the ploughs that turned the soil to grow the crops that fed the nation.
Despite their massive size and strength they are gentle, uncomplaining beasts, even if there’s not much serious work for them to do in these days of the combustion engine.
Even the names of their breeds are redolent of nostalgia and earthy warmth: Clydesdale, Suffolk, Percheron, Ardennes.
Ollie is a real shire horse (and as those last two breed names indicate, these great horses originated in France as well as England. They were the only horses strong enough to carry a fully armoured Medieval knight into battle). He puts in tireless shift after tireless shift; never complaining; always happy to take the knocks if it benefits the team. Always helping out in defence when our opponents have a set piece.
The way we play, his role is incredibly important. If he can’t compete for possession with the opposition centre backs, hold the ball up and play team mates in, it’s much harder to get attack-minded players like Ozil and Cazorla into the most dangerous positions.
Nor does Ollie get much protection from referees. He is often penalized for jumping fairly for the ball and seldom gets awarded the clear fouls against him.
But he fights and fights. His strength is phenomenal and he seems able to bully even the biggest and hardest defenders in the league, retaining possession against all the odds.
As the lone man up front, he also has to run more than most – either trying to find space when we’re in possession or closing down the opposition defenders when they have the ball, forcing them to make hurried clearances and, hopefully, lose the ball.
It was that determination which led to our first goal against Saints. If you re-watch it, you’ll see that Ollie was a long way – at least 20 yards – from Boruc when the Southampton goalie received a back pass in his penalty area. The chances of anything coming of the situation were tiny, but Ollie still made the effort and we all know what (hilariously) happened next.
I know the jury was out on Giroud at the end of last season. He had endeared himself to the supporters by dint of his sheer work rate and attitude, but some fans undoubtedly felt we needed someone ‘better’ for the current season. However, this year Ollie has moved up a whole level.
Aside from doing all the centre forwardy stuff like beating up defenders and competing for high balls, his touch and link-up play have been first rate and his finishing is good too. With 7 goals in the EPL after 12 games, he is on course for more than 20 league goals for the season. And he also has 3 in the Champions League.
Maybe we do need an additional striker in January, but for me it’s not automatic that it should be a striker to replace Olivier Giroud. Certainly it would be preferable to have someone other than the perennially frustrated and frustrating Bendtner as back-up if our Shire Horse gets injured.
But I am not averse to us sticking with Ollie as the front man, sharing the goals with Theo, Aaron, Santi, Podolski and Ozil. I feel that in time he will come to be really appreciated as one of the very best strikers in the EPL.
He may be more of an Alan Smith than an Ian Wright (Smudger was less spectacular and less individualistic than Wrighty) but it’s worth remembering that we won the league twice with Smith leading the line and did not win it at all with Wright as our front man (although he played a part in Arsene’s first Double triumph in 1998).
What do you think?
To finish I’ll leave you with a few of the lines from the Heavy Horses song that put me in mind of Giroud:
Iron-clad feather-feet pounding the dust
An October’s day, towards evening
Sweat embossed veins standing proud to the plough
Salt on a deep chest seasoning
Last of the line at an honest day’s toil
Turning the deep sod under…
Standing like tanks on the brow of the hill
Up into the cold wind facing
In stiff battle harness, chained to the world
Against the low sun racing
Bring me a wheel of oaken wood
A rein of polished leather
A Heavy Horse and a tumbling sky
Brewing heavy weather.