On a sodden, cold and otherwise underpowered afternoon at the Emirates Stadium Olivier Giroud provided an unforgettable moment of illumination. The Frenchman has found himself down the pecking order in recent months, demoted to second choice as collateral damage to Alexis Sánchez’s reinvention as a spiky central striker. One thing does seem certain, though. Whatever direction Giroud’s strangely divisive five-year Arsenal career takes from here, however the club’s hotly-contested modern history ends up remembering him, he is unlikely to have a better moment, in isolation, than the opening goal here. Olivier, old boy, we’ll always have Palace.
What are we calling it then? A Henrikh? A studs-up, reach-back semi-scorpion? Perhaps the greatest no-look donkey-kick breakaway volley you’re likely to see outside the pixelated world of early 1990s arcade machines? Certainly Henrikh Mkhitaryan does seem have been on to something with his discovery of the sole-of-the-boot, reach-around volley.
Giroud’s version, the opener in this 2-0 defeat of a disappointing Crystal Palace, was even better. The build-up was wonderfully slick. Lucas Pérez won the ball and slipped it to Héctor Bellerín. Giroud’s back-heel found Granit Xhaka, who passed to Alex Iwobi. He did exactly the right thing at exactly the right speed, driving forward and zipping an instant pass to Sánchez. Sánchez paused, looked up and floated a cross just behind Giroud as he rumbled into the box.
Hmmm. What to do now? Hang on. In a moment of extreme, imaginative spatial awareness Giroud stretched his left foot up behind his shoulder and sent the ball arcing off his studs past his own left ear and over Wayne Hennessey. With an added gloss the ball even had the presence of mind to clang in off the underside of the crossbar, thereby adding a 20% premium on goal of the season scores, a principle known as Yeboah’s Law.
Giroud, charming as ever, laughed afterwards and said his finish was lucky, that he was off balance and just made something up in the moment. It was certainly a fluke in the sense that nobody could realistically hope to do it again.
As the ball crossed the line there was an odd moment of hush around the Emirates, the air seeming to disappear out of the stadium then rush back in with a gulp at the pure audacity of a moment that had little in common with the angsty bustle that made up most of the opening 45 minutes.
Or indeed little in common with the recent trajectory of Giroud’s Arsenal career. The absence from recent starting XIs is a consequence in part of his own late return from the Euro 2016 final. But Giroud remains an oddly divisive figure, a cumbersome No9 who can look both immobile and also razor sharp, blunt and brilliantly bullish, at times all within the same attack.
His start here was just his second in the league this season. Arsenal have looked sharper and more direct in his absence. But he still has six Premier League goals in his last four starts, albeit across seven months since the end of last season. Indeed, his goalscoring record is good throughout his entire time at Arsenal, even if the impression remains of a fine plan B dressed up in the ill-fitting tinsel of a first choice A-lister. The transition from Robin van Persie, a glistening, pedigree, title-winning striker replaced by a hopeful workhorse seemed to sum up, for some, the frustrations of the late austerity years.
Giroud scores at a similar rate to the man he replaced. But critics will say he just doesn’t seem to do so at the right time, or against the right teams, or with the right degree of match-sealing elan. Shortly before his goal here he missed an absolute sitter, failing to connect in front of goal as Nacho Monreal flashed a volleyed cross though the six-yard box. The ball was skimming and slick on the surface. But being in place to prod those in is pretty much the job, not the one-off worldie back-flick stuff. In one sense even that wondrous opening goal was simply a large, quite slow man falling over to brilliant effect, a moment of pub-football art.
Giroud’s own reaction was lovely, pure joy but also laughter. In the seats the home fans also giggled and danced and hugged rather than just punching the air and acting as though this was anything other than an isolated moment of extreme skill, plus an indication of the basic fun, the occasional silliness of sport.
Arsenal scored again on 56 minutes, this time through a well-placed header from Iwobi. Giroud’s moment aside Iwobi was their best player and most significant presence. Given a chance to play at No10 in Mesut Özil’s absence through illness, Iwobi had a fine game. Socks half-rolled down, not exactly quick but persistent, not exactly powerful but tenacious, he was careful with the ball, and always looking to drive forward and inflict pain on the Palace defence.
Arsène Wenger was generous in his praise afterwards. Seasons rarely turn on fine moments, and Arsenal’s fans will take just as much heart form Iwobi’s craft as they will from a goal that will live long in the memory.