The tag of “useful” is hardly the most desirable for elite strikers, but it is certainly applicable in the case of Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman is not the future for Chelsea and he is not really the present, either. But if we have learned anything from their run-in it is that, for all their exciting young talent and pretty build-up play, sometimes all Chelsea need is a big bloke to make a nuisance of himself in the penalty box.
Giroud was not at his most clinical against Norwich City on Tuesday night, missing a handful of chances he would usually expect to score, but he was at his most irritating for the opposition defence. The 33-year-old’s physical power and sharp movement in the box provided the main threat for Frank Lampard’s side, and his first-half header could prove crucial in the race for the Champions League places.
The resurgence of Giroud at Chelsea, who looked almost certain to lose him in January, has been one of the more unexpected developments of their season. It started before the lockdown, with Giroud scoring six goals in his last 10 league appearances going back to February.
Since the restart, Giroud has struck four times in five starts. It speaks volumes about his usefulness that these goals have come against Aston Villa, Watford, Crystal Palace and Norwich. This is not high-class Premier League opposition, but it is the sort of opposition that Chelsea were struggling against earlier this season.
West Ham United, Bournemouth and Southampton have all come to Stamford Bridge and left with three points at various stages of this campaign. Giroud played just 71 minutes of those three matches, with Chelsea lacking a striker capable of breaking down compact, organised defences.
In short, Giroud is proving himself to be Cheslea’s most effective flat-track bully. This should not be read as a criticism, for sometimes it is precisely what Chelsea need. The word “bully” certainly jumped to mind on Tuesday night, when Giroud simply shoved Norwich’s Timm Klose out of the way before heading in the winner.
No Chelsea player has scored more league goals per minutes played than Giroud this season. Only Michy Batshuayi, who has made just one Premier League start under Lampard, has taken more shots per minute.
“He is always going to give you that desire to keep getting in there for the team,” said Lampard. “When Oli is in the team you use his attributes: you try to cross the ball and stick it in the box. He is a big character for us and he is scoring important goals at the minute.
“Just before lockdown he came in and was part of a couple of big results so that is credit he was due anyway. He has never given me a problem, he has always trained brilliantly. His professionalism was always good. I told him in January I wanted him to stay and he was fantastic in how he handled that. The way he plays is important for us.”
Most encouraging of all, perhaps, is the relationship Giroud is forging with Christian Pulisic. The American winger was lively again, as he has been since restart, and he thrived when linking up with Giroud in the attack. It was Pulisic’s cross that found Giroud for the goal, then the striker almost returned the favour in the second half with a delightful dinked pass over the Norwich defence.
Giroud turns 34 in September and his newly-extended deal expires at the end of next season. No one at the club, least of all Giroud himself, will expect him to be a key man for the club beyond the immediate future, especially with Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech arriving shortly, but he is showing that he could help them to settle. Pulisic clearly enjoys playing off Giroud and the nature of Werner’s all-action, high-speed game suggests he would benefit from the Frenchman’s presence too.
For now, Champions League qualification remains firmly within Chelsea’s grasp. The victory over Norwich took them four points clear of Manchester United and Leicester City, who must play each other on the final day of the season. Chelsea are nearly there, and Giroud is doing more than any other player to help them across the line.