64 minutes into Arsenal’s visit to the Stadium of Light, with Arsenal 1-0 up and dominating, Sunderland’s Duncan Watmore broke free, played the ball around Petr Cech and was wiped out by the goal-keeper’s shoulder.
Sunderland had a penalty.
Jermain Defoe equalised from the spot and we all knew what was coming.
Sunderland would sit deeper, pack the central areas, force Arsenal wide and happily let their 6ft 2” centre halves deal with balls into 5ft 5” Alexis Sanchez.
It was the method successfully adopted by Middlesbrough in Arsenal’s previous EPL fixture, as ‘Boro made 14 headed clearances – a joint record high this season versus Arsenal – matched only by Southampton, who adopted the same tactic and were 30 seconds away from getting a point at the Emirates.
But there was a difference between Arsenal’s games against ‘Boro and Southampton and their game in the north-east. And the difference was sat on the bench. It came in the form of a fit 6ft 4” Olivier Giroud; a man who scored more headed goals than any other in the league last season.
On he came, up top, with Sanchez dropping deeper, and his impact was instant – converting a low cross from Gibbs and then heading in from an Ozil cross.
He was fantastic – two touches, two goals. 3-1. Game over.
Giroud was Arsene Wenger’s plan B, and he turned out to be a perfect one.
But a plan B is what Olivier Giroud must remain.
Despite his excellent show against Sunderland and his goal against Ludogorets in the week, any wistful temptation to put him back into the starting 11 for the game against Spurs or beyond must be tempered with the reality of his limited abilities and general wastefulness.
So, here’s a reminder.
The Frenchman is in his 5th season at Arsenal. In his previous four, regularly playing as a central striker, he has never scored more than 16 league goals.
The 2012/13 season saw Oliver Giroud as the focal point of an attack with an ingenious supporting cast comprising of, amongst others, Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey.
It was a heavily creative team, with Cazorla pulling the strings. The short Spaniard played 84 key passes throughout the season, bettered only by Leighton Baines and David Silva.
It was a team that kept and passed the ball better than any other side and carved out 461 opportunities to score- more than eventual title winners Manchester United.
Arsenal’s intricate, creative play that season, led to Giroud having 85 opportunities to score inside the box, the 4th most in the division. However, the Frenchman scored just 11 goals, converting a mere 13% of those chances. To provide some context, the average chance conversion rate for opportunities inside the box across Europe’s top five leagues stands at 15.6%.
He finished his debut season with the Gunners with a 43% shot accuracy – the second lowest in the league amongst those with 100+ shots.
Most tellingly, the three teams that finished above Arsenal that season all had front men who scored more goals than the Gunners’ main striker.
Despite his disappointing 11-goal return in his debut season, Wenger kept faith with Giroud and he remained Arsenal’s first choice striker for his second season in the Premier League.
This time around, he would have the support of not only Cazorla and Ramsey, but also assist king and striker’s dream, Mesut Ozil.
Arsenal were a fluid unit once again – keeping and passing the ball better than any other side.
The addition of Ozil saw Oliver Giroud have even more shooting opportunities inside the box than the previous season – 90 in total – the second most in the league. Yet Giroud managed just 16 goals and his accuracy in front of goal was equally as sub-par as in his first season, with only 43% of his shots finding the target – again the second lowest in the league among regular shooters.
Another pattern repeated itself in Giroud’s second season in that the teams finishing above arsenal all had more clinical front men, with Suarez and an injury-plagued Aguero netting more than Arsenal’s Frenchman.
Injury and the subsequent arrival of Danny Welbeck saw Giroud make just 27 league appearances in the 2014/15 season.
Arsenal were once again a creative force – fashioning the second most goal scoring opportunities in the league.
Pointedly, with Giroud’s limited presence came an overall rise in the teams shooting accuracy. Arsenal were the league’s most accurate shooters, with 52% of their shots finding the target.
Giroud was actually less profligate in front of goal in 2014/15 – scoring 14 in his 27 appearances.
However, even from a wide position and making just two more appearances, new signing Alexis Sanchez bagged more goals than the Frenchman, netting 16 times.
Yet again, the teams that finished above Arsenal both had more effective strikers, with Costa scoring 20 goals for Chelsea and Aguero bagging 26 for City.
Last season, Giroud’s fourth year with the club, saw him feature in all 38 league games for Arsenal.
It’s the season that provides the strongest evidence to suggest that the he doesn’t possess the quality required to be a starting Arsenal striker.
Mesut Ozil was in mercurial form throughout the 2015/16 season. He played a record breaking 125 key passes and made 19 assists – the most amongst players in Europe’s top 5 leagues.
His verve and eye for a pass led to Giroud having 95 attempts on goal inside the box – the second most in the league – and Arsenal overall having more attempts on goal inside the area than any other side in the division.
Yet, in 38 games, Giroud found the net just 16 times and managed to go on a 15 game goal-less streak between the crucial period of January to May.
By way of comparison, Sunderland, who finished in 17th place and created 150 less goal scoring opportunities than Arsenal, had a main striker who finished the season just one goal behind Giroud.
And Everton, who finished in 12th place, and created 100 less chances than Arsenal, had a main striker who bagged one more goal than Arsenals number 12.
Needless to say yet again the side that finished above Arsenal had a more prolific front man, with Jamie Vardy scoring on 24 occasions.
Oliver Giroud has had four full seasons playing as the main striker for one of Europe’s most exciting, attack minded sides. In this time, he made 135 league appearances and scored 57 times.
He’s clearly not a bad player. He holds the ball up well, is good in the air and brave. He’s a useful player who can provide Arsenal with a solution when, late into games, teams are protecting a lead or forcing Arsenal wide to protect a precious point.
But the qualities required for a first choice Arsenal front man – pace, a clinical finish, mobility, touch, flair – Olivier Giroud does not possess.
It seems that last season’s profligacy was the final straw for Wenger. Giroud’s place is now on the bench. Sanchez is leading Arsenal’s front line and it’s working. Arsenal are top (kinda), scoring goals for fun and are a more dynamic and cohesive unit.
Wenger must resist the temptation to throw Giroud into the starting line-up against Spurs, and beyond, to avoid returning to the previous barren and clunky 4 years of a Giroud led front-line.
Author: Jack Dooley