I heard someone say recently that the France forward Olivier Giroud, their new record goalscorer, “deserves his flowers”. He does. Before each game for France at this World Cup, all eyes are on Kylian Mbappé, the star who has scored five goals in five games, but the impact of Giroud, who has four in four, flies under the radar. In the buildup to England’s 2-1 loss to France the story was the same: will Kyle Walker be the player to stop Mbappé? How effective is Mbappé going to be able to be?
This matches a narrative that has stuck with Giroud throughout his career. We are so preoccupied with the speed, ball control and dribbling skills of players such as Ousmane Dembélé and Mbappé, that top strikers such as Giroud are overlooked.
Against England, we saw the full benefits of Giroud. France were not at their best. In some ways we’ve been spoiled by some of the French teams over the years with players such as Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly and Claude Makelele, teams and players against which this side will always be measured. Anytime we think of France, we think of the flair, the fluidity of play, the elegance, the finesse. We saw glimpses of that on Saturday, but we didn’t see it in large doses.
However, they did show they can get things done when they are not at their full, flying best. We still saw majesty from Mbappé on the ball and the intelligence of Antoine Griezmann dropped into that midfield role while Adrien Rabiot looked another level, dictating the linkup between defence and midfield and into the forward line. But the strengths and qualities of a forward such as Giroud, when things aren’t going your way as a team, were fully on show.
We shouldn’t underestimate the work he does to be on the defenders’ case with his movement and his positioning so that they do not get a moment’s rest. That is extremely tiring and frustrating because they constantly have to be switched on to his whereabouts. The mind is constantly racing: Where is he? Who’s got him? Is he in between us? Here he is now. He’s stretching the game. We can’t squeeze that space because what about this space?
He is also the sort of forward who does not need to be involved in every action. He is happy to preoccupy the two centre‑backs or a centre‑back and a full‑back and slip in between them, stretch the game by pushing them back into their half or into their box and allow crafty, creative, agile teammates – Mbappé, Dembélé and Aurélien Tchouaméni – to do their thing. He is a team player, a selfless player who sticks to the gameplan, allows others to succeed and in turn they allow him to do what he is good at. He frees them up to be able to deliver the kind of balls he wants and expects to receive.
Giroud understands his role and he thrives off it. If we look at the goal he scored against England – at an incredibly important time, in the 78th minute – we see it is a quality header. But his main priority is getting across the centre-back. He moves in between Harry Maguire and John Stones and looks to get good contact with the ball and redirect it. That is a forward’s bread and butter. That’s what every forward is coached to do. When you’re in the box, make it difficult for the centre-backs, get across them as quickly as you can or on their blind side. Then it is the job of the wingers or wide forwards to put a good quality delivery in the box and you go after it.
What sets Giroud apart from other traditional centre-forwards is how good he is when the team bring the ball down, dominate and play their way and also how good he is when they have to go more route one. You won’t always dominate possession, you can’t always build, you can’t always create. Sometimes it is just a simple ball into the box and someone who’s willing, committed and more determined than defenders to put themselves on the line.
But if France needed to play a more transitional counterattacking style Giroud still fits that shape. He can drop deeper into the midfield areas, link up the play and allow space in behind for the quick, dynamic players to get into. Then he will sprint into the box to try to get on the end of something too.
He is a great asset because he allows the team to be more flexible and adaptable, depending on the way they want to play and how they might be forced to play.
It is this adaptability that makes France such a force and why the match‑up with a thrilling Morocco side in their semi‑final on Wednesday is mouthwatering. It’s the match I’ve been most excited about in this tournament. Morocco have already done themselves, their country and their continent proud but it is going to be fascinating to see what kind of magic they can display. They’ve shown they are real competitors. They are so disciplined and well organised as a team but, what excites me too, is that they have the potential to cause damage in their final third, too.
There were moments of transition in their quarter‑final defeat of Portugal, where they were moving at a blazing speed from defence to attack and committing numbers. This is a team showing real belief. They believe they can go out and beat big teams and because of the history of immigration in France, the large north African communities in the country and the number of players of African heritage competing for France over the years, there’s an extra element to this tie.
It is like they are meeting their brothers – but brothers they want to beat.