“You shouldn’t confuse F1 and go-karting and that’s me being kind. On to the next topic. I’m not talking about him anymore. I just know that I’m F1.” In the modern sporting landscape, it is increasingly rare to hear one player speak about another in such scathing terms, but the above quotes were expressed by Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema in describing the ability of his compatriot Olivier Giroud.
Whilst the dispute between the French Football Federation and Benzema is well documented – the striker has not been picked for the national side since being charged with blackmailing teammate Mathieu Valbuena – his comments about Giroud raised an intriguing concept about the value of players existing outside of purely their technical skills.
Perhaps, in some ways, Benzema’s comments are accurate. From a technical, goalscoring and trophy perspective, he has the edge over his compatriot, although it is closer than most realise. Yet, even despite the advantages that Benzema’s possesses, it is hard to make the case convincingly that the national team would be better off having the Real Madrid forward over the Chelsea one, with Giroud a more suitable fit for the style that Didier Deschamps has employed.
The question of which player is better turns out to be largely irrelevant when it comes to the evaluation of a player’s ability, both during and after their playing careers ends. The more pressing question is that of how Player A, in this case Giroud, better suits the style that is being implemented than Player B, Benzema.
Even early in their respective careers, there was a differing expectation for both. Benzema, born and raised in Lyon and coming through their fabled youth academy, was widely viewed as a future French star. The striker was one of the four main players from the infamous class of 1987, the youth group that was supposed to form the basis of the future of the national team once Henry, Zidane and company retired.
Alongside Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Jérémy Ménez, Benzema was pegged as being one of the next superstars, a player to carry France towards international titles. Being a member of the next golden generation of French football and coming through the Lyon youth academy during the middle of their dominance of domestic football in the country gave Benzema the ideal possible start to his career.
On the domestic front, he was coming through the Lyon system at the height of their dominance. They won their first league title in 2002, sparking a run of seven consecutive successes and Benzema was a considerable part of that trophy-laden period, making his debut towards the end of the 2004 season.
It was a gradual introduction into the first-team fold, a luxury afforded to those clubs who can dominate their domestic games so comfortably. The departure of a number of key players pushed Benzema into the starting XI regularly, quite the feat for a striker aged just 19 at the start of the season. His response? 31 goals in 51 total games across the season, driving the club towards winning the domestic double for the first time in their history and earning himself a place on the Ballon d’Or shortlist.
His form saw the biggest clubs in the world, including Barcelona and Manchester United, express their interest in bringing him in, but his heart was set on a move to the Spanish capital. With Real looking to catch up with the rising power of Pep Guardiola’s era-defining Barcelona team, Florentino Pérez embarked on a transfer window that turned the Galéctico policy up to eleven, signing Cristiano Ronaldo, Raúl Albiol, Kaká and Benzema.
Little needs to be said about Benzema’s time leading the line for Real. Four Champions Leagues, two LaLiga titles and becoming the club’s sixth-highest league goalscorer later and Benzema has truly lived up to the potential labelled upon him from an early age, cementing his place as one of the greatest strikers of his generation.
For Giroud, the career path was a lot less certain. Whereas Benzema was starting for the champions of French football at the age of 19, it took until turning 21 for Giroud to manage to secure his first professional contract in football, signing full-time at Grenoble in Ligue 2. His playing time was sporadic to begin with and Giroud went searching for regular game time, going on loan to Istres in the Championnat National, the third tier of French football.
This move proved to be the spark that he needed. Regular minutes allowed Giroud to develop his game, scoring 14 times in 33 league games during his season at Istres, form that earned his move to fellow Ligue 2 side Tours. His 36 goals in 67 total games earned Giroud attention from the bigger French clubs, although Montpellier were not traditionally one of the superpowers of French football.
The higher quality of the top-flight saw a slow start, just 12 goals in his first season, but Montpellier and Giroud both exceeded all expectation in 2011/12, Giroud firing 21 goals that saw the club shock the country by winning the division.
Although Benzema was now plying his trade for Real Madrid, Giroud had managed to grind his way into the international spotlight and he was highly sought-after following Montpellier’s success. Ultimately, Arsenal managed to secure his services, meeting his £10m release clause.
Arriving in north London, Giroud was an out and out goalscorer, expected to be the man to fire 20 goals a season and help lead Arsenal back to the summit of the English game. Whilst he never managed to hit the magical number that is seemingly needed for Premier League strikers to be valued, Giroud’s years in Arsenal were nothing short of a success.
The striker was an instrumental part of the limited successes that Arsenal have managed in the last decade, helping to guide the club to three separate FA Cup victories; a back-heeled assist setting up Aaron Ramsey’s winner in 2014, a goal against Aston Villa in 2015 and then again assisting a Ramsey winner in 2017.
This is not to suggest that Giroud didn’t manage to score goals whilst at Arsenal. A cool 105 goals in 253 club games is a brilliant record, falling at slightly over two games per goal, and it was his scorpion kick against Crystal Palace in 2017 that earned him the Puskás Award for the best goal scored – but it was his overall game that developed to an elite level under the tutelage of Arsène Wenger.
Unfairly labelled as just a target man or super sub by some in the English press, Giroud’s legacy has often been limited to just memories of his highlight-worthy goals, his physicality and his regular appearances from the subs bench. This reputation does his impact a massive disservice. More than just a goalscorer, Giroud was a key cog in Arsenal’s team, doing the off the ball running to create space for his teammates that is often overlooked in simple match highlights.
Take Jack Wilshere’s excellent team goal against Norwich in 2013. Aside from the beauty of the goal, Giroud’s role is particularly noteworthy and highlights two underrated aspects of his game. His movement in dropping towards the edge of the penalty area, bringing his marker with him, opens up the space for Wilshere to continue his run forward and the two touches between Giroud and Wilshere are world-class, ones that would make highlight reels of Ronaldinho, Messi and the rest.
His time since moving to Chelsea hasn’t been as fruitful as perhaps he would like, with Tammy Abraham progressing into the starting line-up under Frank Lampard, but he still finished as Europa League top-scorer in Chelsea’s run to the title in 2018/19, adding to his list of records and titles.
Whilst Benzema’s path to the top of the game has been simpler – trophy-laden and earning more respect from the watching crowds – it is hard to argue that swapping Benzema for Giroud would have made a difference in the national team’s fortunes. That may appear an obvious statement given that they won the World Cup, but would Deschamps team have really played any better if the Real Madrid forward had replaced the Chelsea one?
Aside from Giroud, Deschamps opted for Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé, Thomas Lemar and Ousmane Dembélé as his main attacking options. The key similarity between these four players is their pace and positional intelligence. Both Griezmann and Mbappé have proven at the highest level that their off-the-ball running in behind is amongst the best in the world, and Lemar and Dembélé possess the pace to make those runs just as effectively.
This style of play is clear to track during the World Cup. In their opening game against Australia, Deschamps opted for an attacking trio of Grizemann, Mbappé and Dembélé, aiming to utilise the pace and flair of three of the best players in the squad. Their performance felt disjointed, one in which they failed to fully show their abilities.
Giroud was brought on as the focal point with 20 minutes remaining and offered something different immediately. By dropping deeper on the pitch, he opened up the space in behind the well-organised Australian defence, allowing Pogba to burst into the vacated space and score, albeit via a deflection, the winning goal.
After being introduced into the team from the bench against Australia, Giroud started every remaining match, proving himself unworthy of dropping in Deschamps’s eyes. Mbappé’s winner against Peru came courtesy of Giroud’s deflected effort, one which makes the zero shots on target statistic he is credited with harsh, and his overall performances offered Les Bleus a different option than simply playing with three pacey forwards.
In the pivotal round of 16 tie against Argentina, had Deschamps opted for any of his other forwards except Giroud, the Argentine defenders would have been able to simply sit deeper and prevent the long raking pass over the top. Yet, with Giroud, both Nicolás Otamendi and Marcos Rojo, as well as Federico Fazio, who was introduced at half-time, had to step into the middle of their defensive half to combat the threat of the big striker. This created space in behind, space that was exploited by Mbappé and Griezmann repeatedly, earning France the penalty for their first and the opportunity Mbappé was presented with to score the clinching fourth goal.
Boasting the flamboyant talents of Griezmann, Mbappé, Dembélé, Pogba and others, much more style was expected ahead of France heading into the tournament. Had Benzema or even Alexandre Lacazette been included ahead of the Chelsea striker that would have happened. France may have even gone on to win the tournament anyway. It is clear, though, that Giroud was one of the most important cogs in the team, playing a role that many at the top level of the game, especially in the striking position, don’t relish.
Giroud’s true value comes not as a goalscorer but the ultimate system player. As evidenced against Australia, France were a different team without him in it. Deschamps’s system, despite being criticised as being archaic, relied on the presence of Giroud creating the space for the more creative players to exploit.
Had Benzema been in the same squad in Giroud’s place, he may have played the same role, but his preference is sitting on the shoulder of the defender, dropping deeper into the penalty area once the wide players have made their move into the channels. Even if Benzema was being considered for selection by Deschamps before the tournament, there is still a very convincing case that Giroud would have been the better choice for the system that suited the squad best.
Once the dust settles on both careers, Karim Benzema’s will be the most revered. A brilliant footballer in his own right, winning four Champions League titles and becoming the sixth-highest goalscorer in the history of the biggest club in world football is an amazing career, and his talent labels him as a better player than Giroud.
Yet, Olivier Giroud’s story is one of success and shows the value of players tailored to specific systems. Without his selflessness, work-rate and hold up play, France may have never won the World Cup in Russia. It is hard to argue against the true value of a player who can have that said about them, even if they failed to score a goal during that run.
By Michael Gallwey @michael95angelo