Giroud: Arsenal's best link player since Bergkamp
Olivier Giroud may not score 30 league goals in a season for Arsenal as Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie both did. He had an off-day in Arsenal's 1-0 loss on Sunday at Manchester United. But Giroud is proving to be Arsenal's best link player since Dennis Bergkamp and will be vital for France in World Cup playoffs this week and next.
Arsenal tops the Premier League and Champions League Group F in no small part because Giroud, like Bergkamp, lifts the play of the whole team and gives Arsenal options. When he struggles, so does Arsenal. With Giroud losing balls and misdirecting passes, Arsenal fell short against United at Old Trafford.
Bergkamp had more pure talent than Giroud. But like the Dutch star, Giroud picks out teammates with graceful flicks, holds the ball up front to give Arsenal's slick midfield time to push forward at speed and scores goals on his own. His 16 goals in 45 league games for the Gunners isn't great but he sets up almost as many as he scores. Whether dropping deep, drifting wide or staying in a more central position, Giroud is easy for teammates to find.
He will also play a key role in France's World Cup playoff games against Ukraine this Friday and next week. Supplanting Karim Benzema, who tends to drift about, making him harder for teammates to link up with, Giroud gives France's attack more of a central focal point.
The 27-year-old Giroud was playing in the French second division four seasons ago. Coach Arsene Wenger took a risk signing him from the relative obscurity of Montpellier in 2012. At Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, whispers of ''Olivier who?'' could be heard from fans desperate for the club to win its first trophy since the 2005 FA Cup.
Giroud has proved throughout his career that he improves significantly in his second season at a club.
In his first season with Tours, he scored nine league goals, then he got 21; with Montpellier he scored 12 and then 21. Last season, Giroud averaged one goal every three games for Arsenal. This term he has one in two and is on pace to get around 18.
Giroud is a deft passer - demonstrated when he and Jack Wilshere combined to split the Norwich defense with Arsenal's opening goal in a 4-1 win at the Emirates on Oct. 19. Pundits purred about their one-touch passing that would have made master of the art Barcelona proud. Giroud back-heeled the ball to Wilshere, who returned it to Giroud with a flick of his foot. Giroud then nudged the ball back to Wilshere, who volleyed in, all in a couple of seconds.
Giroud's height also gives Arsenal the option of playing long balls instead of too often trying to pass the ball into the net. He is Arsenal's best header of a ball since striker Alan Smith in the 1990s. In a 1-0 win at Borussia Dortmund on Nov. 6, Giroud seemed to hang in the air before nodding Mesut Ozil's looping cross into the path of Aaron Ramsey, who headed in the winner.
Fans who questioned his abilities and Wenger's failure not to recruit a more typical striker are now willing to look beyond Giroud's goal tally. They sing Giroud's praises to the tune of ''Hey Jude'' by the Beatles.
Another measure of Giroud's success is that Theo Walcott is no longer talked about as a potential center-forward for Arsenal. Walcott is clearly better on the wing, where his speed hurts opponents and where his weaknesses - an inability to play back to goal, limited holdup play and lack of awareness about the positioning of teammates - aren't so telling. Not since Bergkamp retired in 2006 has Arsenal fielded a forward so effective all-around as Giroud.
The only big worry with Giroud is that he might get injured, especially since Wenger is so reliant on him. Wenger tried but failed to sign another forward this past summer. That leaves the under-whelming Nicklas Bendtner as Giroud's only backup. A frightening thought.