08 November 2013

Olivier Giroud, master of the assist

Olivier Giroud started the season so brightly that we started dreaming of a 20-goal season, perhaps even contention for the Golden Boot. After all, following a a preseason of eight goals with three goals in his first three appearances, and five in his first six, it looked like Giroud would again repeat his second-season tradition of scoring, scoring, scoring. Well, he's come down to Earth, if only a bit, with "only" three goals in his last ten starts. His eight goals do put him second in the squad behind Ramsey's ten, who is playing so well as to make the label "in-form" entirely inadequate. Still, Giroud's slow-down might be more of a concern were it not for something else that doesn't quite show up in the stats: his all-around play.

Last season, I wrote frequently of how hard Giroud pressed and was pressured to be a one-for-one replacement for van Persie, and that pressure, exacerbated by having scored so prolifically for Montpellier, was coercing him into taking ill-advised shots and making tricksy little passes rather than keeping it simple. He may never be a scorer like Aguero or van Persie or Suarez, but that may not be what the squad needs. Instead of one focal point, after all, the movement and passing that our attack is built upon might flow more freely in the absence of that one go-to scorer. Now that there is a bit more of a democratic feel, we've had goals from thirteen players, and Giroud is a huge part of that. With five assists, he shares the team-lead with Mesut Özil, known as one of the best playmakers in the world, and deliverer of 72 assists in the last five years, tops in Europe's five big leagues (so says @orbinho).

A lot has been written recently of Giroud's increased physicality; a search for "Giroud battering ram" will give you 23,000 results in the last week. As true as this may be, it tells only a part of the story. For as hard as he battles in and around the box, and as impressive as his work-rate is, he still displays a deft touch, exemplified by that exquisite interchange against Norwich. The contrast between those two skill-sets—tangling with the Skrtels and Shawcrosses of the world versus delivering a soft flick or headed ball to a teammate—is hard to fully describe. Try muscling your way through a crowd of people, some of whom elbow you and yank on you maliciously, while setting a glass of water on a table. Giroud's headed assist to Ramsey against Dortmund this week was along those lines—fending off Großkreutz while nodding down into Ramsey's path. Strangely, though, it was one of his few touches in Dortmund's box, an oddity for such a poacher whose goals almost always come from in or near the 6.

And that leads into the next point. His willingness to drop down deeper to contribute to build-up, has been vital. Playing frequently with his back to the goal, he's like the nucleus of an atom, with Ramsey and Wilshere and Rosický and Özil flitting about him, pinging balls around in a balletic performance. Consider his heatmap against Dortmund, which shows him working far from goal with only a handful of touches in or around Dortmund's box, and compare that to his passes in the chart below, nearly off all of which are backpasses, indicating that he's spending a good amount of time contributing to the buildup and involving others around him. Again, with our emphasis on possession, passing, and movement, this kind of contribution is key.

Speaking of key, those two yellow arrows indicate key passes. For as legendary as Özil  is at unlocking defenses with a key-pass, it's worth noting that Giroud tallied two key passes against Dortmund, not to mention the assist that won the game. In fact, when we look at how many of his passes are key passes over the season, he emerges as superior to Özil! Of course, this is not a one-to-one comparison because they play in different positions and carry different responsibilities, so let's not go nuts here. Simply put, Özil makes many more passes that are possession-based, which will affect his key pass/total pass ratio.. On the season, though, Özil is averaging three key passes and 71 passes per game; 4.34% of his passes are key passes. Giroud averages 1.7 key passes and 29.4 passes per game for a 5.8% rate. Again, this does not mean that Giroud is a more-incisive passer; I'm simply drawing attention to his contributions to the attack and setting it alongside those of one of the best in the squad.

Arsène spoke glowingly of Giroud, saying this of the man:
If you compare his technical level when he arrived to today, he is highly improved. He enjoys now to combine much more. I think from a player who was just thinking, 'I have to score', he has become a real team player. He fights for the team; he has great qualities and charisma. I am convinced there is a lot more to come from Olivier and that he can convince our fans he is the striker they look for.
I have to say that I agree, almost whole-heartedly, with that assessment with one hedge. I don't know if he is or will be the "striker" fans look for, at least not in the sense of scoring goals à la van Persie or Henry or Wright. Maybe he will. If he doesn't, I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes one of the club's leading assist-men. With 14 assists in 63 appearances, he's off to a fine start indeed. Of course, he's the only striker we can really rely on, so he'll have plenty of time on the pitch to add to that tally. Silver lining? Sure. But that's fitting for the number of gilt-edged chances he creates.

Sorry for the play on words there. Couldn't resist. I guess I should leave off before the mood strikes again. Before you go, though, I hope you'll vote for Woolwich 1886 in the Football Blogging Awards. All you have to do is click here to vote via twitter and then send the tweet. If you're not on twitter, you can vote through facebook here, where you also have a chance to vote in other categories for other Gooner sites. I'm the only niche-site in the New Blogs category, going up against some broader, general-interest site, so I hope the Gooner family can lend me a hand. Thanks!

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