In France’s final game of a triumphant 2018, perhaps it’s fitting that the spotlight finally fell upon Olivier Giroud. Handed the ball by Antoine Griezmann, the Chelsea striker scored a penalty to give his country a 1-0 win over Uruguay in a friendly.
At the World Cup this summer, Giroud took much more of a back seat. He had a largely sacrificial role in Russia, drawing the attention of the opposing centre-backs so that his fellow attackers could roam in the space he had created. He didn’t score in the entire tournament, but nor was he necessarily expected to; in that sense, he was world football’s most elite decoy. Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe prospered behind him, scoring four times each.
It is therefore worth making a defence of Giroud, and of other low-scoring forwards. In football’s animal kingdom, they are the equivalent of the flightless bird; they are strangely out of place, an oddity at first glance, but devastatingly effective at what they do best. Giroud has often earned scorn for the long periods he has gone without a goal for his country, but those mocking him would also find it hard to deny that France would not have won a second World Cup without him.
Giroud has been unfortunate in that he has spent most of his career in teams that do not play directly to his greatest strengths — though he is excellent in the air, neither France nor Arsenal have based much of their recent tactics around sending in high crosses. He may even argue that his strike rate is actually very respectable — he has scored 33 times in 87 games for his country, a highly creditable record, which shows that he can prosper given the correct conditions.
Giroud can console himself, though, in that he follows in a long and proud tradition of strikers who have put the team firmly first. In 1998, Stephane Guivarc’h famously failed to find the net at the World Cup in France, but that didn’t stop his country claiming the trophy; like Giroud, he was a vital element of the setup. Look, too, at Alen Boksic, who did not often grace the scoresheet, but who facilitated a ruthless attack for Marseille, Lazio, Juventus and Croatia. When assessing Boksic’s career, it is important to look at the players whose prolific seasons were enabled by his outstanding movement off the ball; Giuseppe Signori, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Davor Suker and Alessandro Del Piero.
In some cases, there are forwards for whom scoring goals is apparently only the third-most important thing they can do for their team. Roberto Firmino’s first two priorities for Liverpool are apparently winning the ball back from defenders, and then providing assists for Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, his colleagues up front. Gabriel Jesus found himself in a similar role for Brazil at the World Cup; like Giroud, the Manchester City forward also went goalless in Russia, prompting teammate Willian to say in his defence: “He has the confidence of everyone around here. I hear people criticise him for not scoring but the work he does in marking and recovering the ball is brilliant.”
In a sense, players like Giroud are a victim of the game’s tactical shift towards aggressive pressing, as made most popular in recent years by Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. It is not common for the striker who leads the press also to lead the scoring, with the latter typically being left to those who are the most efficient in front of goal. This is as it should be: dismantling the elite defence is an intricate job, and requires a team of professionals, each with a specific and demanding task.
If such a job is a heist, then Giroud is the getaway driver; his role is the least glamorous on the team, but he still takes an equal and deserved share of the spoils. Most importantly, his teammates greatly appreciate him. Griezmann typically takes France’s penalties, but he passed that opportunity against Uruguay to Giroud, knowing that his fellow forward had struggled for goals that year. When he made the scoresheet that evening, it was a moment when his contribution to France’s footballing history — huge, but so often unsung — was undeniable.