Meeting an Arsenal player is a privilege I received on this merry month of May. I was invited in London with few bloggers to meet Olivier Giroud, for the launching of the new Puma “Strikes” boots.
But far from a commercial scripted meeting, it was a nice afternoon where we chatted a lot with the Arsenal striker, in between a meal around Camden and a Japanese dinner in Hampstead. It was an occasion to talk about his love for London, Arsenal’s season, his own performance, the future and, obviously, the FA Cup.
So here it goes.
I’m sitting there, with my Anfield’89-up-for-grabs-now jersey, and Giroud looks at me: “Hey, this guy seems to know a lot about Arsenal,” he says. “Long enough to know a bit,” I reply. “So who was the manager before Wenger?” he asks. “Bruce Rioch,” I respond.
At this moment, he gives me an eye like ‘ok, now we’re talking’. Needless to say all this conversation was made with a smile (and in French). But it reveals to me that Giroud was curious about Arsenal’s history, something not so common these days: “It’s a great club,” he explains. “And when you play for such a club, you have to know its history, to understand its values, to share with the fans. I started to follow Arsenal as the kid, watching Thierry Henry. Arsenal means a lot to me.”
And fact is, it’s the same for London. Olivier is a very well educated on the city, giving a lot of “I visited this”, “I found a nice restaurant here”, “I like to go there”, “this part of London is really cool” and so on.
A very curious man, in a good sense: learning, getting rich as human being. “I also appreciate London because of the people. They are very respectful; they do not judge you on what you wear or what you look like. It’s very different from France.”
And what about the football fans? “I spend a lot of time posing for pictures in the street,” he said, laughing. “But it’s nice to be appreciated.” Even when he met Tottenham fans? “I’ve never seen them. That’s because Arsenal is by far the most famous club in London.”
And then comes the moment to talk about the team, and a particular 2013-2014 season. “It was a season full of hope. We stood for 128 days in first place, our objective was the title, not 4th place,” says Giroud. “But we lost important games, we lost our consistency, we conceded too many goals and failed to score at vital times. After the loss against Everton, we talked a lot between us and with the staff, to stop the negative spiral, and being consistent again. We wanted to keep 4th place which is very important for the fans and the club. The important thing was to get the confidence back. We missed vital players like Mesut [Özil], Aaron [Ramsey] and Jack [Wilshere], and since they’ve been back, we’re playing much better football.”
And what about his own season? “I’m happy with my season, even if I admit I should have done better, especially in the second half of the season. Starting the campaign, I’ve had targets, speaking about goals, which was around 25 in all competitions. I reached 20 in the League, and I also gave several assists, another important target for me. For the next season, I have new targets for both goals and assists. I keep it secret, but I will work hard to reach it.”
Best goals of the season? “My number one would be the goal against West Ham a few weeks ago. It’s kind a goal I like because you have everything: the pass, the difficulty, the movement, the control, the execution. And what’s make me proud is people in and out the club told me it was “Bergkamp-like”. Another one is the goal against Tottenham at the beginning of the season. It’s always nice to score against them, especially at home, and this one is another great combination: quick counter, Theo’s perfect cross, and the ball can’t go into a much better space.”
Favourite moment of the season: “I think it’s again the West Ham game in April, because it was a very important game for the players. We wanted to put things in the right way. And we did.
“I also liked the Napoli game at home. We played in a wonderful way, we were almost flying. And the crowd was so noisy! Our fans are great, even if we sometimes expect them to be louder at home. But they are great. I love to hear my song; it still gives me the shivers. During the last game against Norwich, when Abou [Diaby] came on, they gave him a huge cheer and clapping, it was just….wow!”
Best player of the team this season? “Laurent Koscielny. I don’t say that because he’s my friend. He’s really a great defender, and I can tell you I’m sometimes happy not to have to play against him in the league.
“I can say Mesut Özil too, wonderful player. He knows how to control the game, playing long, short, protecting the ball. Injuries pushed him out this season, but he will be our main player next season, no doubt about it.”
Most improved player? “I would say [Wojciech] Szczesny. He worked a lot and got a reward for that. He’s more confident, stronger this season.
“Another one is Ramsey, he’s just a different player from one year to the next, and he made us a different team as well when playing.”
When talking about next season, Olivier is very positive: “We want to be title contenders; we want to win the league. We have the tools to do so. We lost only one game at home this season, and it’s a very good platform to build on. We must reproduce our home performances when travelling, especially against the top teams. We talked a lot about that between us, we know we must improve.”
And finally, the FA Cup final. And again, one word: positivity. “We are focused on our football and our strengths. We want to win this trophy to make the fans happy, and to repay the club and the manager’s confidence. So we work, we stay positive.”
Do they talk about the last final in 2011? He cuts in: “Birmingham? No. We don’t need to. What’s done is done, we must go forward. One thing is sure: this time, it will be a different story.”