European Football

Interpreting the Legacy of Olivier Giroud

Learning to appreciate the scope of work from France’s Mr. Reliable…

Olivier Giroud is now France’s all-time top men’s goalscorer. Let that sink in.

Giroud’s first half goal in France’s 3-1 Round of 16 win over Poland cemented the veteran striker into the history books. His 52nd goal for Les Bleus launched Giroud past France legend Thierry Henry to become the highest scoring male French player for the national team ever. It is a staggering achievement for any player to become his country’s all time top goalscorer, but it does feel weird in this instance. Given all of the otherworldly talented players who have worn the famous French blue shirt, it is a bit weird to think that Olivier Giroud has scored more for Les Bleus than Henry, or Zidane, or Michel Platini, or David Trezeguet, or anyone else.

And this got me to thinking: if Giroud were to hypothetically retire after the World Cup, what would his legacy be? And, well, that is a much more complex question than I thought it would be.

Giroud has a less than typical background when compared to his national team compatriots. He came through at Grenoble during their run up to Ligue 1 but could never stick in the team. After a loan to third division side Istres, he was deemed excess to requirements at Grenoble, with then-manager Mehmed Baždarević internally declaring that Giroud would never make it at an elite level. He went to Tours, where he had two very good years and was named Ligue 2 Player of the Season in 2010. He then joined Montpellier and returned to Ligue 1, where seemingly everything changed.

Montpellier were champions in 2012, La Paillade‘s only league title and France’s version of Leicester City’s famous fairytale title win. The main man in that team was a 25 year old Giroud, whose 24 goals and nine assists lit the league alight. He earned his first call up to the French National Team, at the age of 25 and without ever having played for any France youth team, and earned his big move to Arsenal as a result. That Montpellier team is still celebrated in France, especially as Ligue 1 entered the era of PSG dominance shortly after. And the fact that Giroud is able to reach the milestones he has while only making his France debut at 25 is extraordinary, speaking to the level of player he has been for a while. But the move to England is where the legacy gets more complicated.

Giroud never set the world alight at Arsenal. There were very high expectations, especially coming off of the title season at Montpellier and coming to Arsenal to replace Robin van Persie, but he never quite hit the highs many thought he could. 2015/16 was the closest he got to that high level, with his 16 league goals and six assists helping Arsenal ultimately finish second and narrowly miss out on a league title. He was never the main man on the Arsenal teams that won three FA Cups during his time in North London, but he was there and he made contributions in the earlier rounds. It was never quite enough for Arsenal, however, and the Gunners would once again turn to France to find their superstar striker, signing Lyon striker Alexandre Lacazette and Borussia Dortmund (but formerly of Saint-Étienne) forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Giroud departed for Chelsea shortly after.

But here is the thing; even if he was not a superstar for Arsenal, his absence was certainly noticeable for the Gunners. Lacazette never really took to life for Arsenal, never living up to his lofty potential. While Aubameyang had a pair of outstanding 20+ goal seasons for the Gunners, it was clear his best role in the team was as a wide forward off the left rather than as a center forward. When asked to play centrally, Aubameyang’s performances, as well as Arsenal’s, suffered, as Aubameyang was asked to play a role he was not suited to play. A role that Giroud filled perfectly.

This is the crux of Giroud’s presence and legacy: he is a player who might not jump off the screen when he is there, but he is someone that you notice when he is not. Lacazette was ultimately a disappointment for Arsenal, a subpar version of what they had previously. It feels weird to say, but it is fairly true that Arsenal never adequately replaced Giroud possibly until they signed Gabriel Jesus from Man City this past summer, and even then you could argue that Jesus is simply what they had before with Giroud but in a different (and much more expensive) package. For Arsenal, Giroud was never a superstar, but he was a player who was reliable, ever-present, and who made the players around him better.

Giroud was never intended to be the starting center forward for Chelsea, but in a Blues team that had several tried and failed number nines in Álvaro Morata, Gonzalo Higuaín, Tammy Abraham, Timo Werner, and Kai Havertz, Giroud presented a consistency and reliability that was desperately needed at times to keep the ship afloat. He also had his own big moments that his Arsenal tenure lacked. He was the leading scorer in the Europa League when Chelsea won it, including a goal and assist in their 4-1 Final win over Arsenal. He had another six goals in eight Champions League appearances on the path to Chelsea’s European Cup triumph in 2021. Not a superstar, not meant to be, but he was reliable and appreciated. And when he left, Chelsea never really replaced him either. The aforementioned center forwards never really stuck, with Morata, Higuaín, Abraham, and Werner all no longer with Chelsea. A big money reunion with Romelu Lukaku did not work out either. Now, Chelsea are fighting to even get into the European places this season while having scored less goals than the likes of Brighton, Newcastle, Fulham, and Brentford. When you look at this Chelsea team, you would think they could use a striker who can lead the line, occupy center backs, and be dangerous in the box while still getting his teammates involved.

Someone like Giroud. You see a theme here?

This is why it is difficult to truly characterize Giroud’s legacy as a player. He is never a superstar when you watch him, but he is someone who is consistent, present in important moments, and noticed when he is not there. After Chelsea, he went to Milan, where he was needed to deputize for the injured Zlatan Ibrahimović. On paper, he had a fairly unremarkable season. 11 goals in 29 games does not jump off the page, but the presence and impact cannot be argued when you move beyond the surface level. He did a lot of what he had done previously: occupy center backs, open up space, link up play, make players around him better. But he also shone when it was most needed. Half of his league goals came against teams who finished in the top six places in Serie A, with the most famous being two goals in a come from behind 2-1 win over Inter. Milan won the league over Inter by two points, showing the weight of those two derby goals. 11 goals does not jump off the page, but they carry weight. Without them, Milan are not champions of Italy.

Even for the national team, even with the 52 goals he scored, he was never one of the stars. His performances at Euro 2016 were rather muted compared to Griezmann and Payet, and he famously did not even register a shot on target during the World Cup in 2018. He is a player that many thought France could upgrade upon, especially given his rise to regular for Les Bleus came during Karim Benzema’s absence from the national team. When Benzema returned to the National Team for Euro 2020, everyone expected France to take another step toward invincibility. The reality was much different, with a sputtering France attack unable to find chemistry as the team crashed out in the Round of 16. France never really found a system that consistently worked with Benzema as striker, but the team has returned to their imperious best seemingly with Giroud returning as the starting number nine in Qatar.

Once again, maybe not the superstar when he is there but certainly noticed when he is not.

This is why this is such a complicated conversation. When you think about prominent French center forwards, so many big names come to mind: Benzema, Henry, Cantona, Papin, Trezeguet, Anelka, and many others. Where does Giroud fit in among those names? Truthfully, I have no idea. He was maybe not the most consistently excellent player at club level, especially when compared to some of the above names, but he was also an important performer on teams that were champions of France and Italy, as well as a team that won the Champions League. And he scored FIFTY TWO goals for France. He won a World Cup, and he was a penalty shootout away from winning another one.

Giroud has a very strong legacy, complications aside. He is not a legend by any means, but a hero when he was needed the most. He should be remembered as France’s reliable and dependable servant. He continues to be viewed otherwise, though, as the kid who did nothing on the group project but put his name on it anyway, or as a player who only hung around because of Benzema’s absence. While his France career is likely over after the World Cup, the legacy he has already written in the blue shirt should be enough to be remembered as one of the cult heroes of this generation. His club legacy, dependable and noticed when gone, should be enough for him to be remembered the same way. We have time to sort out the rest of the details, but Giroud at minimum deserves a level of respect he has yet to receive.

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