Can there be another striker in football so often maligned by supporters but turned to by his managers than Olivier Giroud?
Didier Deschamps has followed in this World Cup where Arsene Wenger and Antonio Conte have trodden before in first thinking that the flowing technical football he would like from his team was best served with Giroud on the bench before discovering that his presence might actually be the key needed to unlock those more aesthetically players.
Deschamps had played 4-4-2 for much of the qualifying campaign. He switched to 4-3-1-2 in the warm-up games and then, in the underwhelming opening victory against Australia, tried to unleash a trio of quick attacking talents in Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele in a 4-3-3 system. The theory was bold and potentially thrilling, but the practical application was of three strikers making similar runs and generally getting in one another’s way.
Giroud duly settled things when he came on and, in starting here and helping France to a 1-0 win that clinches their place in the last 16, Griezmann, Mbappe and later also Dembele were far more effective. France suddenly had a big physical focal point at which to aim and, while Giroud’s lack of pace and unpredictability in front of goal are very obvious weaknesses, his touch and guile must make him a dream to play off.
A brilliantly cushioned header down to Griezmann as he backed into the Peru defenders created France’s clear chance, which was well saved by goalkeeper Pedro Gallese.
It was then also Giroud’s whose run into the channel was wonderfully picked out by Paul Pogba and, while his shot was then blocked by Alberto Rodriguez, Mbappe gratefully followed in to score France’s winner. Seconds earlier and Mbappe had just missed another clear opportunity when he tried to over-complicate with a back-heeled volley that connected only with thin air.
It was a reminder that, while Giroud has far more flamboyant talents around him, his more old-fashioned and streetwise style can be every bit as effective in the modern game. With Peru also later piling on the pressure in a desperate attempt to avoid World Cup elimination, Giroud’s presence from defensive set-pieces was invaluable.
With Karim Benzema, Anthony Martial, Alexandre Lacazette and Kingsley Coman among those left behind by Deschamps, it is difficult to think of another international manager with a greater depth to his attacking options. France remain a work in progress but that even he has now found they are a better team with Giroud in it tells you everything about his rare and often undervalued qualities.