Arsenal are cooking this year. Twelve weeks into the Premier League season, the Gunners have opened up a four-point gap on second-place Liverpool, and after a comfortable 2-0 win against French side Marseille today, Arsenal are one point away from a berth to the Champions League knockout stage.
But betting odds don't reflect that. Arsenal have a six-point lead on Manchester City, but the Citizens are 8/5 to lift the Premier League trophy at season's end over 3/1 Arsenal. Champions League odds have Arsenal dark horses at best to win the tournament. They face longer odds than FC Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid, City, Paris Saint-Germain, and Chelsea.
Odds, of course, don't mean anything, but they're interesting all the same, because they highlight what most of us, in our gut, already feel. Arsenal are vastly improved from last year, but they're just not quite there yet.
And that's because, even with the inspired play of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, even with the depth in the midfield, even with the recent return of Theo Walcott and Serge Gnabry, and the injured Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain getting closer to seeing the pitch again, Arsenal's success hinges on one solitary player: French striker Olivier Giroud.
After famously failing to buy a striker in the summer transfer window, Arsenal have a joke of a substitute for Giroud in Dane Nicklas Bendtner. Bendtner, when he's not being arrested, when he actually seems up for a runabout, is still shit. Most teams, especially the best ones, have multiple viable attacking options. Luis Suárez runs the show in Liverpool, but if he gets injured or suspended, Daniel Sturridge is a great replacement capable of heading the line himself. Sergio Agüero is the Premier League's leading scorer, but if he's forced to miss time, Edin Džeko is chilling on the bench. Both Zlatan Ibrahimović and Edinson Cavani can play center forward for PSG. Messi and Neymar. RVP, Rooney, Welbeck, and Chicharito. And so on.
Giroud had a shoulder shrug of a first season with Arsenal last year. He scored 11 goals in 35 Premier League appearances last season, which isn't bad, but isn't great, either. (Suárez, who Arsenal pursued heavily this summer, scored 23 in two fewer games.) This season, though, Giroud's settled into life in London, and he's bossed it as the only option in the Arsenal attack. He's been on form, scoring seven goals and already assisting four more in 12 matches this year. Even with Arsenal's signing of Mesut Özil, possibly the best playmaker on the planet, and Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey turning seemingly overnight into one of the top players in the world, it's Giroud who's often been hailed as Arsenal's hero. His form has paid dividends on the national team, and until last match, the Frenchman had beaten out Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, who Arsenal also pursued, for his country's starting spot.
But all this success takes a toll. Because of his success, he's already played an unbelievable 20 matches this season for club and country. He's wearing down. Arsenal fans hold their breaths every time he picks up a knock, and recently, there have been reports about an ailing knee. Supporters are hoping that manager Arsène Wenger is on the case, ready to buy a new striker in the January transfer window.
Because Giroud, though he's vastly improved, is not world class. He's a 6-foot-4 brute, strong, smart, and possesses the sexiest of first touches, but he won't run past anyone. And though he looks a lock to obliterate his scoring record from last year, he's still wasteful in front of goal. He's missed the entire goal from shots inside the box more often than any other striker in the league. He's playing a lot, he's getting into dangerous positions, and ultimately, he's squandering chances.
If Giroud were a bit younger, this would be OK. People said Walcott couldn't finish (he couldn't) but last season, the speedy winger led all Gunners with 14 goals in the Premier League. Ramsey, who has six goals already, had three total in two seasons prior. But the Frenchman's 27. His evolution as a player is likely finished. This is the time where we see him reach his full potential during his peak years. He's a tidy player, and a very good player. But he's not one of the best in the world.
The question, then, is if Wenger should buy a backup for Giroud, or splurge on a top forward. Obviously, since Arsenal have the money, it would seem that buying a better player would be more exciting and conducive to longterm success than buying a weaker one. But that'll be tough for a number of reasons. The winter window is only a month long, and somehow, Arsenal have developed a habit during the longer summer transfer window of waiting until the final hours of the final day to wrap up negotiations. This doesn't bode well for an abridged window, especially one coming just a few months after the close of a summer window that saw a lot of the world's top forwards moving to new teams.
If the Gunners find a way to, say, pry forward Robert Lewandowksi from Borussia Dortmund this January, or decide to cough up for a stud, none of this will matter. But Wenger has said publicly that Arsenal can win with Giroud leading their line. Whether or not they can, however, likely comes down the rest of the Arsenal cast instead of Giroud.
Giroud's a phenomenal, willing passer, but he's not a creative force the way Suárez, Agüero, and Messi are. He's not coldly efficient enough to be a poacher, either. He's a linkup man, and his best attribute is his ability to bring other players into the match. Giroud has already scored some important goals this season, but his most memorable play is this ridiculous assist to Jack Wilshere against Norwich City last month. It was a vintage goal, a throwback to an Arsenal team and style that hasn't existed in years. But Arsenal's English take on tiki-taka is back this year, and it's working. The Gunners are second in scoring in the Premier League, only to Manchester City. Ten Arsenal players have already scored in the Premier League, and last year's most dangerous player, Walcott, hasn't found the back of the net yet.
The most crucial argument for Giroud being given competition instead of a demotion in January, however, might be Ramsey. The Welshman has played on the right wing and ahead of the back four this season, but his tally almost equals Giroud's. No one else has scored more than two goals this season, but Ramsey's play in front of goal makes up for it. If he continues to score, the addition of Walcott and Podolski, as well as Özil's growing comfort in the English league may deem an upgrade for Giroud unnecessary.
The problem with relying on Ramsey, even in form, is the problem with relying on Giroud right now. They're playing better this season, better than anyone else on the team. But it feels too good to be true. The goals are new. The beautiful linkup is new. Whether both of these players can remain consistent and healthy over the next month will likely be the key to Arsenal's January plans.
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