Arsenal 1-0 Southampton – Olivier Giroud: The man for some occasions

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Alexis Sanchez might have been the match-winner, but Arsenal undoubtedly owe a debt of gratitude to Olivier Giroud for this vital win over Southampton.

Giroud’s contribution has sparked the butterfly effect of opinion, evolving swiftly from the initial and innocent musing as to why he didn’t start in to the bellowing demand that he play every game from now until May.

It’s not as simple as that. This performance doesn’t prove that Giroud is the answer to our striking situation, just as Danny Welbeck’s match-winning display at West Brom didn’t see him crowned as our de facto centre-forward.

As the pattern of this game developed, it became clear we needed Giroud. That’s something difficult to anticipate: had Arsenal scored early on, we might have shifted in to a counter-attacking strategy in which the pace of Welbeck, Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been more useful.

As it was, we needed someone who could help us lay siege to the Southampton goal and provide a focal point for our crossing game. Giroud did that and more. Although Alexis Sanchez will rightfully grab headlines for another priceless goal, the game really swung on Giroud’s arrival and the exit through injury of Toby Alderweireld.

Giroud is unique among Arsenal’s forwards. His aerial presence and hold-up play are superb, but there’s one quality that really makes him stand out: his vision. His physique gives him the platform to receive the ball with his back to goal, but it’s his brain that allows him to be so effective with it. The deft flicks and neat touches don’t only show a player of considerable technique — they show a player with of creativity and imagination. Southampton couldn’t handle him.

However, it won’t always be thus. There will be times when Giroud starts and has to be withdrawn for the speed and movement of Danny Welbeck. Presumably we’ll then go through an inverted version of the same discourse, with people anointing Welbeck as the solution and casting Giroud aside.

Instead, Arsenal fans should simply be grateful for the variety they now have in their attack. Neither Giroud nor Welbeck are of real world class. However, between them they have the requisite attributes to beat most defences we’ll encounter. Crucially, they’re supplemented by Alexis Sanchez: a Swiss army-knife of a player who seems able to adapt to any opposition.

Based on the evidence of the last two seasons, we already know that Giroud is not the man for every occasion. However, as he proved this evening, he is undoubtedly the man for some.

WBA 0-1 Arsenal: Is Arsene Wenger trialling a formation to suit Theo Walcott?

Arsenal celebrate after Danny Welbeck's goal at West Brom

I was intrigued by Arsenal’s starting XI at West Brom. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was afforded a rest, so Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez both started on either side of Olivier Giroud. It was a proper front three, with the two wider forwards frequently rotating and drifting in to the centre to join the Frenchman.

Welbeck performed extremely well in what’s a familiar role to him. He created the most goalscoring opportunities of any Arsenal player, completed the most sprints, and racked up the third-highest passing accuracy in the opposition half. More importantly, he got the winning goal with an excellent header to end his brief barren run.

However, his long-term place in the team is far from guaranteed. Debate has recently focused on the duel between Welbeck and Giroud. Watching him at West Brom, I wondered if his real competition might yet come from Theo Walcott.

The fluid front three system Wenger trialled at the Hawthorns seems ideally suited to Walcott’s attributes. He could switch wings with Alexis Sanchez, roving infield to play off Giroud when appropriate. He doesn’t offer as much defensive cover as Welbeck, but is historically more productive in the penalty area. Welbeck will have to improve his goalscoring ratio if he is to see off Walcott on his return to fitness. My hunch is that, as last season, Wenger sees Giroud as a crucial cog in his first-choice XI.

Having Giroud and Laurent Koscielny available certainly makes the squad feel a lot stronger at both ends of the pitch. It might be a strange time to say it after Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal both picked up knocks at the Hawthorns, but I’m almost wondering if strengthening the midfield might become a bigger priority than adding to the defence come January.

With Debuchy getting closer to a comeback, we do at least have Chambers and Monreal who can offer a measure of cover at centre-half. At present, Mathieu Flamini is the only fit holding midfielder. Impressive though he was at West Brom, his erratic form this season suggests he’s not the reliable alternative to Mikel Arteta we require.

Our next opponents are a lesson in the importance of that ‘DM’ role. With Morgan Schneiderlin anchoring their midfield, they’ve had the best defensive record in the Premier League this season. It was telling that all three goals Manchester City scored against them this weekend came after his withdrawal with injury. Let’s hope it keeps him out for Wednesday too.

Taking it a game at a time

Well, that was much more like it. Borussia Dortmund might be struggling in the Bundesliga, but they remain a team packed with individual quality. A 2-0 win is undoubtedly something to celebrate.

A lot was made of the difference between our performance against United and Dortmund. In reality, I think the biggest differentiator was the opening goal. Had we not scored in the first couple of minutes, there’s nothing to say we wouldn’t have gone on to attack with the reckless abandon we did against United. Had we gone behind… well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Nevertheless, it’s still good to focus on the positives, of which there were many. Arsenal’s main stars were the understudies: Emi Martinez and Yaya Sanogo shone in the absence of Wojciech Szczesny, Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck. Sanogo’s goal does not thrust him in to regular first-team contention, but it does get both a monkey and the fans off his back.

Arsenal being Arsenal, the elation didn’t last long. Within minutes of the full-time whistle, Arsene Wenger had confirmed injuries to both Sanogo and Mikel Arteta. The following day, news broke that Jack Wilshere had undergone surgery that will see him miss the next 3 months.

It’s hard to feel surprised by a prolonged Wilshere lay-off anymore. It’s like death, taxes or Robbie Savage saying something stupid: it just happens and there appears to be little anyone can do about it. It was a poor challenge from McNair, and few would have survived it unscathed. However, I do wonder if Wilshere’s tendency to hold on to the ball too long invites such clatterings. His bravery on the ball is admirable, but costly. Something for him to contemplate during his lay-off, perhaps.

The Wilshere news rather pulled the rug of positivity out from under our feet. I suspect that’s a feeling we may have to get used to this season.

Personally, I’m just taking it a game at a time. With the Premier League title beyond us, it’s already tempting to view this as season as a write-off. That’s a horribly depressing outlook. I find the only way to avoid that is to embrace the present and try to enjoy the ride. Go from game to game, savour the wins, and keep your eyes on the immediate foreground rather than the horizon. There may not be anything for us in May, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to deliver some memorable moments along the way.

Next up, West Brom.

Arsenal 1-2 Man United: Why the players have to take blame too

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It’s never just one thing.

The culture of football analysis is such that, at full-time in any given game, there is an immediate and intense desire to attribute the result to one particular factor. Journalists hunt for a line with all the fervour of coke-addled addicts, and fans fight to make their post-game punditry concise enough to squeeze in to a 140 character tweet. A game’s hero and villain are invariably declared within minutes of the full-time whistle. Consensus is quick and often condemnatory.

The truth is that a result is rarely determined by one singular thing. It’s almost never entirely due to the brilliance of one player, or indeed the error of another. Football is a game composed of thousands of interconnected moments. The margins are so fine that such acute analysis is impossible.

Louis van Gaal summed up the precarious nature of the game quite well in his post-match press conference. Reflecting on his side’s victory, he remarked that had Arsenal won the match, he would have been interrogated on his decision to play with three central defenders. As it happened, they scored the first goal and went on to win comfortably. As Van Gaal put it, “I can laugh now”.

No-one’s laughing at Arsenal, as the multiplicity of our problems becomes ever clearer. Up until now, the prevailing narrative has been one of Arsenal’s poor defending. However, after failing to capitalise on such dominance over Manchester United, scrutiny is now focusing on our misfiring attack. We’re almost in to December, yet we’re still not establishing reliable patterns of play. There’s a lot of running, but no structural rigour. We can’t pretend that the back four is our only problem – the entire team lacks balance.

The coaching will be questioned again. I understand that entirely. Arsene Wenger’s stock has rarely, if ever, been lower. However, it’s once again important to consider the complexity of apportioning blame. After all, Arsene Wenger didn’t miss that first-half sitter — Jack Wilshere did.

A manager’s limitations do not entirely absolve his players of responsibility. The boss’ proclivity towards attacking football has been balanced out in the past. When you have players who assume leadership, it’s not such a problem — see the Invincibles. A team’s fortunes are not solely down to the manager. Let’s not forget, a Chelsea side overcame the significant handicap of being coached by Avram Grant to reach a Champions League Final.

We all know that Arsene Wenger isn’t going anywhere until 2017. With that in mind, we have no choice but to demand more from the players. They can’t hide behind his diminishing reputation. They might not like it, but this is their mess too.  It’s never just one thing, and Wenger’s tactical naivety does not fully excuse theirs.

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Video: On the Whistle Reaction