By James Goldman
Fine margins define seasons less so than fine players, a point no better illustrated than by the moments that ultimately decided Tuesday’s thunderous encounter between Champions League chasers Arsenal and Everton.
The comparison between Robin van Perise and Olivier Giroud has oft been made throughout a campaign of differing fortunes for both men. It remains an unavoidable one.
The Frenchman will end his first term in red and white with at least seven more goals than the Manchester United forward managed in his maiden season in north London, a statistic that paints Giroud’s contribution in a positive but misleading light.
Concentrate on the numbers if you wish, but the eyes have, and continue, to tell a different story. Consider the contrast between Tuesday’s bruising clash and the corresponding fixture last season as conclusive evidence.
Then, back in Novemebr 2011, the match was decided by Van Persie’s texbook volley, scored from an implausible angle, dispatched with a calm authority. It was a goal fit to decorate Arsenal’s 125th anniversary celebrations and one thoroughly out of keeping with the 70 or so mundane minutes that had gone before.
By contrast, when presented with an opportunity to, if not rubber-stamp, then certainly significantly enhance Arsenal’s top four prospects, Giroud was wild, wayward and wasteful.
His big chance, in front of the same net that Van Persie had located, but from the opposite side of the penalty box, was, in fairness, far from routine.
The limpet-like Phil Jagielka, who certainly enjoyed a reputation enhancing evening, did enough to increase the level of difficulty by launching himself in front of Giroud, but when a calmness and clarity of thought were required, the former Montpelier man opted, unsuccessfully, for the sledgehammer approach.
Earlier he had contrived to miss two opportunities from close range when it appeared the odds were stacked in his favour, though his determination and inclination to be in the right place at the right time were worthy of praise.
To constantly ram home the opinion that he is not fit to lace the boots of the man he replaced, however, misses the point. This is a man who was plying his trade in the third tier of French football not too long ago, while Van Persie, destined for greatness ever since he broke through the ranks at Feyenoord, has spent the entirety of his career, when he has been fit enough, at the top end of the game.
Giroud possesses many noteworthy qualities – his assist tally indicates he is not as one dimensional as many would have you believe – but he has been assigned a role to which he is wholly unsuited, that of the club’s No.1, nay only, striker.
Such a position of responsibility requires force of personality as much as it does talent. Think Ian Wright, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and even Alan Smith, who won the First Division’s golden boot in both of George Graham’s title winning seasons, coincidentally the Arsenal player of the past Giroud has been most likened to.
That such a steady stream of criticism has flown his way is not his fault. He is a victim of extreme circumstance. He plays so regularly because there is no alternative. That a man so committed to attack as Arsene Wenger has left himself so restricted in this area, regardless of the decision to sanction Van Persie’s departure, beggars belief.
Arsenal’s defensive lapses and lopsided midfield have been contributory factors on the road to defeats against elite competition this season. But had he equipped himself with a greater armoury, the deficiencies in his side may well have been compensated for in the defeats they have suffered against Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City this season.
Again, it is worth stressing that Giroud has his worth. He has offered far more than many other foreign strikers, past and present, have done in their first seasons in this unique and unforgiving league.
He is popular with his teammates and his name, chanted to the tune of Hey Jude by the Beatles, resonates around Emirates Stadium regardless of his performances.
Unfortunately, the man he replaced used to score when he wanted, or so they sung. Giroud, you sense, will never come close to being as prolific.