Few Arsenal players from the current squad are more discussed and debated than Olivier Giroud.
Our hunky Frenchman is something of an enigma.
To some he is a selfless workhorse giving his all for the team and making the most of (relatively) limited talents.
To others he is a top quality centre forward who will be a 20+ goals per season man in time.
And to his harshest critics he is no more than a stop-gap: the guy who’s filling in until we can buy a “proper” striker.
My own opinion of him has fluctuated but, just recently, I have had something of a revelation. I now believe that Olivier has possibly been the most significant factor in Arsenal’s success during 2013 and 2014.
Key to this theory is the concept – touched on occasionally in comments here on AA – that this Arsenal team is playing a different game to its predecessors.
Broadly speaking we have had three styles of play during the Arsene Wenger years (including the current approach).
Wengerball Mark 1 was the style that brought us such success in his early years at the club. We played a fast-breaking, highly technical form of 4-4-2, with a lot of height and power in the team. Arsene took on the formation that was then prevalent in the English league but improved on it through his choice of players (highly technical Continentals) and through his coaching, training and health methods. Mk 1 culminated with the Invincibles, the best team in Premier League history, and came to an end shortly afterwards.
Wengerball Mk 2 was a combination of necessity and enlightened thinking: the gradual switch to an Arsenal version of tiki-taka. Necessity – because the move to a new stadium meant we would have to go years without any real money to spend and would have to build a team around our one emerging superstar, Cesc Fabregas; enlightened thinking because from around 2006 tiki-taka started to become the dominant style in European and world football and Wenger was an “early adopter” of the new approach. In Mk 2 we swapped out the powerful athletes of the Mk 1 era for small, fast-moving players who were even more technical than their predecessors. The second era of Wengerball came closest to working in 2008 but, overall, cannot be deemed to have been a success. Our lack of spending power meant we could not surround Cesc with enough world class players and our version of tiki-taka too often resulted in playing the ball from side to side in front of packed defences without breaking through. Meanwhile we were regularly out-muscled by the physically bigger and stronger players of Manchester United and Chelsea.
So what is Wengerball Mk 3?
To me it’s a style that borrows much from tiki-taka, but with a Velcro-covered battering ram bolted to the front. Those masters of the tiki-taka game, Barcelona and the Spanish national side, invariably build their moves from the back with a focus on keeping possession. The striker generally only comes into play at the pointy end of matters, as his slick-passing midfield colleagues tap-dance their way into the opposition penalty area.
Arsenal tried this approach but it would often break against our opponents’ defence like waves against a sea wall. When we had had enough of the sideways passing and tried to penetrate we often lost possession very quickly and found ourselves caught on the break.
But Olivier Giroud changed all that.
Suddenly we had someone up front who could retain the ball; who was not bundled off it by lumpen defenders; who could bring midfielders into play and who could give us a plan B if we wanted to try just crossing into the box or if we were under pressure.
It meant we could persevere with the tiki-taka elements of our midfield (triangles, changing position, give-and-go) but also have a much safer outlet when we wanted to play the ball forward.
And that’s the way we play today. Now when our midfielders play the ball into our striker they do so knowing that they will not be forced back on the defensive immediately, as was too often the case in the past.
Mk 3 gives us the flexibility to play from the back tiki-taka style, and also to occasionally put an early ball out of defence up to Giroud who can then hold it up until our other attackers and midfielders come into play.
Why do we have the best scoring midfield in the EPL? Because of Ollie.
I know many will argue with the idea that Giroud is the biggest factor in the revival of our fortunes. I can imagine some will say it’s down to our new-found defensive discipline.
But to me, that defensive discipline is also down to Ollie in large part. Apart from the actual defending he does (defending from the front when the opposition are playing out from the back and contributing massively to our defence at set pieces), Ollie’s hold-up play also allows the rest of our team to defend better.
In the pre-Ollie days, remember, we were punished on the break so often that it was like a recurring nightmare: all those games where we would lay siege to the opposition without seriously threatening their goal, then concede on their first attack.
Part of the reason was that we were losing possession too frequently when we attacked.
Now that happens less often and when it does happen our players are more likely to have had time to get back into position and to nullify the counter-attacks.
Wengerball Mk 3 is probably the only way of making a partly tiki-taka based game work effectively in the blood-and-thunder of the Premier League and it’s to Arsene Wenger’s great credit that he has figured out how to do it.
I’m even inclined to think that that’s what he had in mind when he signed Chamakh. As we know, the Moroccan did not turn out to be the man capable of playing that hold-up role and we also got side-tracked by Robin van Persie finally hitting a purple patch, but the way we now play is what Arsene has been working towards for a few years.
Olivier Giroud has finally made it possible.