It has not been an easy season for Olivier Giroud, widely castigated as the standard-bearer of Arsenal's long-term underinvestment and short-term slump. He has 14 Premier League goals, a total bettered by just six players, and has registered just one assist fewer than Arsenal's leading provider Mesut Ozil, yet Giroud is seen as the epitome of Arsenal's just-not-quite air.
Operating as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation (which Wenger has used in every Premier League game this season), Giroud's task is to hold the ball up, provide for attacking midfielders running beyond him and then get into a position to finish the chances that come his way. It's a strategy that Giroud has the attributes to carry out, but relies crucially on the personnel around him. In an ideal scenario, that would be Theo Walcott, Ozil and Santi Cazorla.
The potential for success is clear. Giroud can receive the ball centrally to feet and play a return pass, as defined so beautifully in Jack Wilshere's goal against Norwich earlier this season. Alternatively, he can play the ball wide to a pacey winger, who must look to run beyond their central midfielders and demand the ball in wide areas. The lone striker will then look to feed off accurate service.
Arsenal's early season form demonstrated the effectiveness of such an approach. Walcott and Giroud both started Arsenal's first six matches, and the Frenchman scored five goals in such a timeframe. 25% of Giroud's goals scored in just six games due to the presence of a pacey threat in support.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, Walcott did not stay fit for long enough to continue such an impressive relationship. But, whilst the England international understandably avoids criticism due to his enforced absence, Giroud has been forced to stand alone in the spotlight and attempt manfully to perform the main role without his principal supporting actor.
It was encouraging to see the manner in which Podolski got into the penalty area to support Giroud during the second half, and Arsenal's attack gained structure through this, but this has been the exception rather than the rule to the German's contributions so far this season. Would Wenger perhaps consider playing two strikers in a bid to support Giroud?
Thus, without Walcott's pace, Arsenal lose the element of surprise in attack on which much of Giroud's success depends, and which this season's most successful teams (Liverpool and Manchester City in particular) have relied so evidently - his task quickly becomes fruitless. Forced to play with back to goal in an effort to both hold the ball up and then bring others into play, Giroud is often met with groans when forced to pass it back into central midfield. Left isolated up front, a record of one goal in his last seven matches is still criticised.
Giroud completed just one pass in the first quarter of Tuesday's match against West Ham, a statistic that initially looks to reflect badly on the Frenchman. However, watching the match it was clear that this owed little to his own form and much to the inadequacy of the options around him. Kim Kallstrom (starting his first game for the club) too often looked long, whilst the requirement to give Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a rest meant that Lukas Podolski was effectively Giroud's only option to pass the ball wide. It was a rotten first 45 minutes, devoid of vigour or verve. Arsenal were stagnant.
All of which made Giroud's role in Arsenal's eventual victory so satisfying, because his goal was all of his own making. From a long, hopeful ball played forward by Thomas Vermaelen, Giroud managed to out-muscle Andy Carroll before cushioning the ball with (dare I say it?) Bergkamp-like aplomb. The finish was also hugely positive, it coming from a right foot that had been so foolishly ignored during a first-half chance from which Adrian made a comfortable save. Sheer, unadulterated beauty.
I wrote after Arsenal's draw with Manchester City that we too often judge a club's attacking prowess simply on the return and individual performance of the striker(s), overlooking the fact that actually a club's attacking unit is made up of different elements that also must include attacking midfielders and wingers. Taking out even one of these is akin to taking a cog out of a machine, and the absence particularly of Walcott (although clearly Ozil too) has almost forced Giroud to carry out multiple roles in a bid to somehow create cohesion and avoid attacking inertia. That's a thankless task.
To only add to the strain, Giroud has been left unsupported through the lack of investment on behalf of his club. No outfield player has made more Premier League starts for Arsenal this season, and yet he is being forced to carry out a tiring and often unrewarding role. He has effectively been the entirety of Arsenal's strike-force during a season in which huge pressure has been created through initial success.
Giroud is not the perfect striker, that much is clear, but has been forced to take on the leading role without his supporting cast. If Arsenal do qualify for the Champions league for the 17th season running, there are few players that deserve more praise than their oft-derided leading scorer.