Two games into the Premier League season and it seems as though hysteria is the only option among some of the Arsenal fan base. After two goalless draws at home to Sunderland and away at Stoke, it seems much of the criticism has fallen upon the player occupying the central striker’s role, who has mostly been Olivier Giroud. Many people would argue he is not a suitable replacement for Robin van Persie, a ‘nobody’ who was playing in the French 2nd tier just three seasons ago — and the fact of the matter is that he is no Van Persie. He is, however, Olivier Giroud; with his own strengths, his own talents, and his signature will redesign completely how Arsenal get the ball in the goal this season.
Initially, we have to look at his movement over the course of 90 minutes. Both Van Persie and Giroud are vastly intelligent in their positioning and movement in the goal area. Neither have particularly outstanding pace, and though Giroud is impressive in the air, only 1 of his 21 goals last season were with his head — showing neither rely on an aerial presence to score goals (but do use it in other areas, as will be highlighted later). Thus, without these natural blessings, both have to rely on a poacher’s intuition to score the amount of goals they have in the past season.
Though both are intelligent movers, they move in completely different ways and this looks set to change how Arsenal approach attacking this season.
This first map shows Robin van Persie’s received passes against Liverpool last season. He was at his best — two clear cut chances, two goals. What this map shows is how central his play was in this game. His movement is varied up and down the pitch, coming well into his own half to collect the ball on a number of occasions. However, just 4 of the 21 passes he received were outside of the central third of the pitch, signifying that whilst he is an active player on the pitch for Arsenal, he was unlikely to ever drift wide and let others briefly occupy that central spot.
Now let’s compare this with the movement of Olivier Giroud. Above is a heat map showing his patterns of movement in two games last season in the French Ligue 1. In both games he has scored, and in the game against Sochaux he bagged all three of Montpellier’s goals. The main difference we can see in his movement is that he was much more willing to come out wide to collect the ball and create space. This lateral movement was a staple of his at Montpellier, and though only having the one 90 minute outing against Stoke, seems indicative of him in the Premier League. This movement is intelligent as it allows other attackers to attack the central area of the pitch, be they Lukas Podolski and Gervinho on the wings or Santi Cazorla or Aaron Ramsey pushing on from midfield.
This way of attacking is a much more complicated ordeal for opposition defenses to tackle — a fluid front three being more of a goal scoring threat than last season’s Arsenal, who looked to play wide and then back into the central area to Van Persie, often giving the impression of a static attack. The stats back up the hypothesis – both strikers finished with their respective golden boots last season, but Van Persie provided 40% of the goals for Arsenal, whilst Giroud only provided 29% of Montpellier’s total goal count last term. Thus, we may be able to conclude that the complex movement shown by Giroud and by Arsenal this season will lessen the burden on one goal scoring threat, and spread the onus of goalscoring throughout the entire side.
Furthermore, this can only heighten the output of Lukas Podolski. Arsene Wenger has explicitly stated he is better in the central position, but looks to be deployed on the left side of Arsenal’s attack. Through Giroud’s movement out wide, the former Koln man is given a license to attack the centre of the pitch more often.
Many at this point will have noticed that all this central play may negate the heading ability of Giroud, but this further highlights the tactical shift in North London this season. First, his presence did give Arsenal an option of a long ball and knock down that has previously been lacking in their play, and may provide a plan B for when they come under more pressure against higher quality opposition. Furthermore, as the wide men drift inwards in their play, the main crossing threat has been coming from the full backs of Gibbs and Jenkinson rather than the wingers. This indicates they will have to be further up the pitch for more of the game. To allow this, the more positionally aware defensive double pivot of Diaby and Arteta have taken up the role of Barcelona man Alex Song this season, leaving the defence more adequately protected in the event of a break than last season – shown by Stoke’s meagre four shots on target and zero corners on Sunday. If there are any positives to take from the two opening performances, it is that the team has looked tremendously solid in defense. This defensive display has allowed Arsenal to dominate the game further up the pitch, shown by 41% of Cazorla’s passing being in the final third of the pitch on Sunday.
It seems strange to conclude that Arsenal’s two clean sheets are down to Olivier Giroud, and in a way it is a warped conclusion. But Giroud’s arrival in place of Robin Van Persie has managed to signify the complete revolution in the way Arsenal have approached these two matches, and once the side is able to settle in, I fully believe the Gunners will become a better and more well rounded side without Robin Van Persie. We have to remember that out of the six players that have been attacking for Arsenal in these two games, three are new signings who have had little time with their new team mates (all were at Euro 2012) and one played less than 90 minutes of competitive football all of last season. The reason they are playing like they don’t know each other is because they don’t know each other. However, it is plain to see that once the cogs of the Arsenal attack sync up correctly, it will run like a well oiled machine.
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