It is necessary to explore what the credentials are required of someone who leads a frontline in the modern game.
Long gone are the days, for those old enough to remember, of Malcolm Macdonald or, more memorably perhaps, Kevin Campbell and John Hartson of Arsenal’s yesteryear. These were all bruising, physically dominant, striking powerhouses capable of not only leading a line, but often terrorising it, sometimes single-handedly.
Nowadays, though, it is—pardon the pun—a different ballgame. Leading the line has more emphasis on quick hold-up play, simultaneously linking a move from back-to-front in one fell swoop. It is in this form of leading the line that Olivier Giroud’s credentials should be analysed. Another thing for consideration is that there is also a difference between leading a front line and leading Arsenal’s front line.
For the last decade, Arsenal's football has built on a precedent of mobility, fluidity and interchangeability, and as such, Giroud has found himself having to adapt his style to make it more suitable. During his time with Montpellier, he played as the focal point of the team, which seemed to work as he top-scored in the league the season before joining Arsenal and while he helped Montpellier to their first league title.
Now at Arsenal, Giroud is having to lead the line in a different sense; there isn’t so much pressure on him to score all the goals for the club, although admittedly it is still a large part of his game. But with the likes of Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla and Lucas Podolski all scoring 10-plus goals each this season too, Giroud’s responsibilities in leading the line have evolved. That’s what is meant by there being a difference in leading the line and leading Arsenal’s—he will be judged for not scoring 20 or more goals in the league, but play goes through him rather than being solely aimed at him.
Leading the line does comes with responsibilities, and one sore point for Gunners fans might be his lack of goals on the road—only one away from the Emirates in the league—his leading the line may prove effective in bringing others into the game, but on a personal level, he may need to get a bit more clinical and selfish in seasons to come.
Giroud has been impressive in sporadic patches in his first season in England.
It’s fair to say even the best exponents of the game in England all take their fair share of time to settle in, but he has weighed in with goals—some of them match-winners or point-savers—and assists to boot; the majestic flick to turn it onto the volley for Podolski against his old club Montpellier springs to mind.
After that game against Montpellier, Wenger said of his fellow countryman (via Arsenal.com):
Giroud is good when he plays completely on the offside line. When he is a target man and uses his link-up play, he is fantastic because he can win in the air; he can score with his feet and can be a complete striker.
In order to successfully lead the line in today’s game, unless you have the physique of a small building, you need to be able to perform a host of functions, particularly at a club like Arsenal. We see now with the top two international teams on the planet, Spain and Germany, that they rarely line up with a striker, let alone an imposing, dominating figure. The technical proficiency and malleability of forward players is the key—something Arsenal has been trying to practise for the past decade.
Giroud possesses all of those qualities, admittedly not in abundance, but they are there. If he was to have maybe one extra man up top with him feeding off of his intelligent runs, then his work ethic would get noticed a lot more.
Since his arrival I have had several debates on Giroud and his credentials, and yes, he can go from the sublime to the ridiculous—like the miss at home against Everton recently, which I sat directly in front of, and I can tell you it was an absolute howler. But having said that the point to get across to people is he is there—he does make the runs, pull the defender, drop off the shoulder. His football brain is sharp, but he does need some refinement. And with that refinement and adjustment, to a new set of striking responsibilities, he can, and will, lead the Arsenal front line for seasons to come.