Exclusive: Arsenal, A Striker Light?

With 3 league wins on the trot, Arsenal are now being talked about as potential champions. Mezut Ozil’s arrival at the club will clearly add a dash of panache to an already lively and incisive forward line, and on Saturday at Sunderland, we saw at first hand his ability to put chances on a plate for the likes of Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud. And it’s Giroud’s excellent start to the league campaign (4 goals in 4 games) which has rightly garnered the headlines. The Frenchman made steady progress last season – always working hard to put himself in the right position, and creating space for his colleagues to seek him out with the required killer pass. He didn’t always look the part however, appearing slow and cumbersome on occasion, and missing the occasional sitter – at home to Sunderland and Everton – for instance. His transformation so far this season (he’s already set himself the target of securing the Golden Boot for instance) seems nothing short of miraculous. But the main question is: can his outstanding run of form last?
If Giroud’s goal laden run continues, he’ll join a distinguished list of Arsenal strikers who came good after a slow start to their Arsenal careers. When youth team product John Radford broke into the team in the mid ‘60s, the crowd regularly gave him “the bird.” “They reckoned I was slow and clumsy, and they made no bones about telling me. The problem was that I replaced quicker, more skilful players like George Eastham and Joe Baker.” Radford later went on to plunder 149 goals for the Gunners in a 14 year career, and won the Double in 1971 with Bertie Mee’s team.
The best modern example of a front man taking time to adapt is the case of Alan Smith, signed from Leicester City for £750,000 in May 1987. Despite scoring 11 goals in his first full season at the club, “Smudger” regularly drew stinging criticism from the Highbury crowd, which was often dissatisfied with his tendency to hold up the ball, as a move broke down around him. “It took a while for the fans, and my team mates to understand the way I played,” he recalled. “George Graham introduced players to the team who then brought out the best in me.” Smith was the First Division’s top scorer as Arsenal won the league in both 1989 and 1991. His ability to shield the ball and draw team mates into the play was virtually unparalleled in the top flight at the time. Smith netted 115 Gunners goals, won various silver pots with the club, and always scored goals that mattered in key matches but remains, like John Radford, one of the most under rated Arsenal stars ever.
Unlike Olivier Giroud however, Smith and Radford were in their pomp when they dovetailed with a twin striker. Radford and the burly Ray Kennedy formed a physical yet skilful partnership which injected fear into opposition defences, and garnered them 34 goals in the ’71 League campaign. “Sometimes, when I was having an off day, I knew that Raddy would come into his own, and he felt the same way about me,” recalled Kennedy years later. “We formed a terrific partnership, but we weren’t just about goals. We could bring in others, like George Graham and George Armstrong, who also weighed in with their fair share. It was all about positioning in and around the box, and ensuring that ultimately, Arsenal won the match.” The same could be said of Smith’s fine partnership with Paul Merson in both 1989 and 1991. Both men, unsurprisingly, have described one another as the best striker they ever played alongside. Under Wenger, the system up front has been rather more fluid in his most successful seasons, although it’s worth noting that at the tail end of the 97 – 98 campaign, Dennis Bergkamp and Nicolas Anelka dovetailed perfectly, as did Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord for much of the 2001 – 2002 campaign. In the Invincibles campaign, the Gunners were spoilt for choice up front; Kanu and Wiltord were de luxe substitute strikers who could be brought in at a moment’s notice when Henry and Berkamp tired.
The options facing Wenger in the 2013 – 2014 campaign are limited. There may be an embarassment of riches in terms of attacking playmakers and wingers (Ozil, Walcott, Cazorla, Rosicky, Podolski and Oxlade – Chamberlain), but aside from the fact that at the time of writing, three of those – Cazorla, Podolski and Oxlade – Chamberlain – face lengthy spells on the sidelines, there isn’t another orthodox striker with any Premier League experience in the squad – unless you count the fitful Nicklas Bendtner, who’s just been informed that he must lose weight if he’s to play any part in the team in this season. It doesn’t bode well, because although our playmakers are more than capable of weighing in with a hatful of goals this campaign, title winning sides need more than 1 striking option up front to put away chances, preferably at least 3.
Cast your mind back to the 2007 – 2008 campaign, when the Gunners looked set to win the League for much of the season. Arsenal had 4 strikers in the squad; Eduardo, Adebayor, Van Persie and Bendtner, but long term injuries to RVP and Eduardo scuppered their chances. Had Wenger signed Nicolas Anelka in the January transfer window that year, rather than Chelsea, things may have turned out differently, which just goes to show that you can never have too much firepower on your hands in a title race. Jose Mourinho knows that only too well, which is why he refused to let Demba Ba go on a season long loan to the Emirates this campaign. Another decent option up front, and Arsenal really might have been in there at the death.
As it is, Olivier Giroud is ploughing a lonely furrow up front, albeit brilliantly at the moment. But what happens when he’s injured, or suspended, or jaded? Perhaps Arsenal will move again for a striker in the January transfer window. To win a title with just one orthodox striker in the squad would be a monumental achievement. Let’s hope Giroud keeps thundering on, otherwise we’ll all be ruing the club’s inability to land a mega bucks striker this summer.