“Because we are competitors, we want to play every single game to help the team win,” Olivier Giroud said three days before Arsenal’s Premier League fixture against Manchester United. “We want to be on the pitch, we are all competitors, so that is it.”
It was a week that epitomised Giroud’s season. The striker was asked about his chances of starting his first league game of the season with Alexandre Lacazette out through injury, and must have assumed he would deputise. As it was, Lacazette was passed fit, Giroud was left on the bench again and given only the last 14 minutes to impress.
Giroud has played 12 Premier League games this season, but managed 234 minutes in total. No player has made more appearances without a start, yet only two have been longer than 25 minutes. Giroud is no longer the Plan B, because Alexis Sanchez offers the alternative option to Lacazette as a central striker. He is the Plan A for the B fixture.
This has been a shared experience for a number of Arsenal players in their Europa League group stage – Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Mohamed Elneny and Giroud. They look a class above against such mediocre opposition, but have little chance of starting Premier League matches regularly. Instead, their new natural habitat is an Emirates Stadium with numerous empty seats. The attendance for Thursday’s game against BATE Borisov was comfortably the lowest in the brief history of the Emirates Stadium.
This week, Giroud’s future has been called into question after comments from France’s assistant manager Guy Stephan. With the World Cup coming next summer and France as one of the favourites, Stephan suggested that Giroud “has to find a solution in the coming weeks”. It’s not a particularly subtle hint that he must leave or be left out.
If there is an established view of ‘Olivier Giroud Arsenal striker’, his reputation in his homeland is slightly different. Only six players in history have scored more goals for France than Giroud, his total of 29 only one below French greats such as Just Fontaine and Jean-Pierre Papin. Even more surprisingly, Giroud’s international goals per game record is better than Thierry Henry and Karim Benzema.
Still, the competition for places in France’s attack is fierce. Stephan and Didier Deschamps must choose between Antoine Griezmann, Lacazette, Nabil Fekir, Kylian Mbappe, Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial, Ousmane Dembele, Kevin Gameiro and Giroud. It is hard to justify selecting a striker that hasn’t started a league game in six months, particularly when a compatriot is the one keeping him out of his club team.
For so long, Giroud’s ability was sold as an insult rather than compliment. It’s hardly his fault, but Giroud was an emblem for what Arsenal were not (and who they could not buy) rather than what they were. The club courted Benzema, then Gonzalo Higuain, then Luis Suarez and then Jamie Vardy, but Giroud still remained. His very presence was a continued disappointment.
The arrival of Lacazette for a club-record fee finally answered the long-term demands of supporters who saw Giroud as their Mr Just-Not-Quite. Scoring 20 goals a season in all competitions is only impressive if you can’t afford a striker who might score 30.
Now Giroud’s problem is not that he isn’t good enough, but that he is too good. As the league starts have declined (26 in 2015/16, 11 in 2016/7, none in 2017/18), the scoring rate has increased. In 2015/16, Giroud scored a goal for every 152 minutes played. That fell to 100 minutes last season and again to 78 minutes so far during this campaign.
Giroud has now gained a reputation for the spectacular star turn. A scorpion kick against Crystal Palace was followed by a supreme winner against Red Star Belgrade and a bullet header against Leicester City. He has become a novelty act but also a useful part, not dissimilar to Marouane Fellaini at Manchester United under Jose Mourinho.
Arsene Wenger is therefore understandably reticent to let Giroud leave in January: “They have to make their decisions; I have to make mine. I cannot consider too much the interest of the national team. I want to keep the squad. We do not want to become weaker. I have to consider the interest of the player but dominant of that will be the interests of the club.”
You can see Wenger’s point, for this is the indirect result of the increase in broadcasting revenues and thus enlarged cash reserves. Wenger and Arsenal could make £30m by selling Giroud in January, but is that injection of funds really worth the risk in case Lacazette picks up an injury? A better strategy is to talk up the attitude of reserve players and their readiness to start important games if required without ever actually calling upon them.
In that scenario, a previously key player has two options. They can speak to their agent, kick up a fuss and push for a move, as Joe Hart did at Manchester City, or they can accept this new bit-part role and be grateful for the time that they did spend in centre stage. Those who are strongly sympathetic to Giroud’s plight should remember that he signed a new £90,000-a-week contract in January and rejected a summer move to Everton. He will be almost 34 when his contract expires in June 2020.
“There was something in my soul and in my heart which told me to stay,” Giroud said when signing that contract. “There are nice days to come for me in an Arsenal shirt.” Appropriate sentiment at the time, but wildly fanciful in hindsight; think minutes not days.
Giroud is a member of a small group of Arsenal teammates stuck in eternal purgatory. They are not considered good enough for important first-team purpose but considered too good to be sold midseason. Their only option is to grin, bear it and celebrate those Europa League goals.