When France began their World Cup campaign, their chances of reaching the final appeared in mild jeopardy.
There would be no Presnel Kimpembe to offer security in defence. Injuries to N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Christopher Nkunku had removed a number of midfield options available to Didier Deschamps. A thigh issue for Karim Benzema — days before the tournament — raised questions over France’s attack.
Oliver Giroud had been effective in the country’s Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018 campaigns, but could the man once described as a “go-kart” by Benzema repeat the trick?
Four goals in five games and overtaking Thierry Henry as France’s all-time leading scorer means the answer has been a resounding yes. Benzema’s injury can now be interpreted as a blessing in disguise for Deschamps.
Rather than start the Real Madrid striker with Kylian Mbappe in a 3-5-2, the France coach has instead made Giroud, 36, the foil and focal point of their attack, using the AC Milan striker in a 4-2-3-1.
The 21st century has seen international football and club football go on separate paths.
Before Euro 2020, Roberto Martinez said of the difference between the two: “What takes you 60 sessions in pre-season to set a team up, you need to do it in three sessions with international teams.”
The World Cup final remains the pinnacle of the sport, but the football a team must play to get there often requires compromise. Some nations in Qatar tried to play a classic No 9 to bludgeon opponents, at the cost of their defensive solidity.
Others, such as Spain, opted against a central focal point, instead attacking as more of a collective. The rarity of the No 9 in the club game means strikers are becoming increasingly expensive in the transfer market. In the World Cup, strikers have become near-mythical creatures.
Enter Giroud, who is an international footballing unicorn — someone who can help with team attacks and create goals for himself when the going gets tough.
Read more: Several France players have been dealing with sickness before the World Cup final. What will it mean for the match?
France’s run to the World Cup final has been a triumph of tactical planning from Deschamps. Aurelien Tchouameni offers some of Kante’s tackling and ball-winning ability, while Adrien Rabiot (and others) have made a respectable go at replacing his runs from deep.
Antoine Griezmann’s exceptional creativity as France’s No 10 has replaced the passing output Pogba used to offer into the final third, while Tchouameni can cover the Juventus man’s passing from deep. Kante and Pogba are not present in Qatar, but their playing profiles have been replicated by a number of people pitching in.
The clever work in midfield is punctuated by Giroud, who holds the centre and allows France’s attacking bodies to cause havoc.
The striker’s ability to enliven the attacking quality of team-mates has long been documented. In September 2018, Eden Hazard said of Giroud: “He’s a target man, maybe the best in the world. When he gets the ball, he can hold it, and we can go with him.”
Last year, Christian Pulisic added: “He is incredible to work with, just the movements he makes and the way he communicates is very clear.”
After Giroud became France’s oldest goalscorer in September 2022, Mbappe joined in with the accolades. “I have a lot more freedom here. The coach knows there is a No 9 like Olivier who occupies the defence.
“I can walk around, go into space, ask for balls… in Paris (for Paris Saint-Germain), there isn’t that, it’s different, I’m asked to do the pivot.”
Mbappe’s quotes were a thinly veiled jab at his role for PSG, but spoke to the value of Giroud, who has fashioned an impressive career doing the dirty work a lot of forwards would prefer to avoid.
Benzema remains a superior goalscorer, but few strikers at the World Cup receive the ball with their back to goal as well as Giroud. Fewer still are able to reliably turn their defender before playing in a team-mate.
Giroud did not score against Morocco in the semi-final on Wednesday but he demonstrated his on-ball threat as well as his off-ball selflessness. In the 16th minute, he collected a ball over the top and outran (an injured) Romain Saiss before his shot hit the post.
He lacks the pace of his wingers or even Benzema, but at a time when several modern attackers prefer to play as inside forwards or floating No 10s, Giroud has excelled at being a No 9.
Qatar has seen Giroud perform as a thoroughly modern interpretation of the classic target man. He has “good feet for a big man”, a good nose for an aerial opportunity and he creates space for those around him.
Before the semi-final, Giroud ranked as one of the best off-the-ball creators at the tournament, able to collect in dangerous areas and then turn that danger into high-quality chances for France.
His ability to stand on the last line of an opponent’s defence creates greater space for the midfielders behind him, and his skills with the ball mean he can score goals even if the opponent closes down the passes in behind. As England discovered in the 2-1 quarter-final defeat, he is superb at making near-post runs to attack headers.
“The French didn’t love him much, but now everyone adores him, even those who criticised him and I can see a few in this room,” said Deschamps of Giroud before the tournament.
“He’s been part of this group for a long time, I consider him a useful striker for his style of play, he is important also when he doesn’t score.”
The France coach surprised many by not calling up a replacement after Benzema’s injury, but why bother when you have a striker tailor-made to international football like Giroud?
Sometimes having a bigger toolbox isn’t as good as having the necessities. In March 2020, Benzema may have likened himself to a Formula One car and described Giroud as like a go-kart, but there is a reason why go-karting trips are often used as team bonding sessions. Giroud is a striker for the collective.
(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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