How Giroud’s Physicality Allowed Arsenal to Alter Approach Against West Brom

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In their recent home match against West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal dominated proceedings during the first half. They passed the ball around effortlessly, controlling nearly 80% of possession in the process, and they were rarely troubled by their opposition. The likes of Granit Xhaka, Francis Coquelin and Mesut Ozil bumped the ball around between themselves with precision, but despite some nice combination play, they found it tough to generate openings against a packed West Brom defence. The Gunners needed to make an alteration to find the breakthrough, and when they came out of the sheds for the second 45, it was immediately apparent that they’d done exactly that.

In short, they started to cross the ball a lot more after the interval. They upped their cross count from seven in the first half to 11 in the second, and instead of trying to play neat little cutbacks into a heavily congested penalty area, they opted to put the ball into the mixer more often. In some ways, you could probably argue that they should have done this from the start, given that Olivier Giroud, Arsenal’s 192 cm target man, found himself in the starting line-up for the first time in the league this season. In other ways, however, it’s important to realise that Giroud has largely made way for Alexis Sanchez up front throughout the current campaign, and maybe, as a consequence of that, Arsenal have become used to playing with a smaller centre forward, one not so well suited to aerial delivery.

Either way, the Gunners pulled the trigger more quickly in the wide areas, and this allowed them to create a number of impressive openings after the break. Soon after the restart, Kieran Gibbs hit an early cross from the left following a pass from Xhaka. His curling ball may have failed to find the head of a teammate, but after a couple of quick rebounds, Alex Iwobi launched a first-time shot from the edge of the area. West Brom goalkeeper Ben Foster lunged towards his right in order to stop it, before being forced to make a second save from the onrushing Alexis.

Arsenal won a corner from the exchange, and even though Alexis generated a chance from that set-piece, he punched a hard drive into the post. Still, the Gunners were starting to use this newfound approach to good effect, so the crossing continued. Not too much later, Xhaka, who recorded a staggering 141 passes for the game, pinged a long diagonal out towards Iwobi on the right. The young Nigerian then exchanged a quick one-two with Hector Bellerin before taking the opportunity to cross. His effort enabled Alexis to track the ball down on the edge of the box, and after steadying himself with a touch, the Chilean attacker stung the palms of Foster with a well-timed strike on goal.

Arsenal again went close to breaking the deadlock with a cross after substitute Lucas Perez entered the fray, but Giroud couldn’t quite latch onto the Spaniard’s low drive into the goalmouth. Then, just as the match entered its final five minutes, Arsenal hit the lead through yet another excellent piece of distribution from out wide. This time, Mesut Ozil was responsible for whipping in the delivery. He curled in an accurate ball from the right-hand side, one which allowed Giroud to use his physicality, one-on-one, against Gareth McAuley. The imposing Frenchman went to work in a big way, shrugging off McAuley to send a looping header in at the far post. In doing so, he drove the home fans at Emirates Stadium into a frenzy, and in a match full of frictionless but ultimately fruitless short passing from the Gunners, Giroud showed the value of variety.

In the post-match, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger summed this up nicely. “We kept going and in the end when we couldn’t make the difference on the ground,” he said, “we made it in the air with maybe the only player in our team who can do that.”

Despite highlighting the fact that he would prefer his players to make the difference by playing the ball along the ground while saying this, Wenger also recognised Giroud’s ability to give them a different look up front. The 67-year-old understands that Giroud gives the Gunners a chance to change things up when they need to, and as the fixtures continue to pile up at this time of year, that could be crucial to their title chances.

Who knows, Arsenal might even need to rely on Giroud’s added variety in their next Premier League fixture, against Crystal Palace.