By Julien Laurens
November 22 – you could say it was Olivier Giroud’s red letter day.
When a professional footballer goes nearly 10 years and over 300 games without suffering serious injury, the day he comes back from his first prolonged spell on the sidelines is a day he will never forget.
Three months after freakishly breaking his ankle – the impact of the ball following a Sylvain Distin clearance doing the damage – Arsenal’s No 12 was back with a bang, scoring a half-volleyed screamer against Manchester United, which sadly still couldn’t prevent a Gunners’ defeat.
He hasn’t looked back since, with seven league goals in nine starts since that game as well as a both goals in the FA Cup against Middlesbrough that had Arsene Wenger purring: “Olivier is a different player today than the guy who arrived here. He understands what top-level football demands, works with a great concentration in training and he has improved tremendously on his mobility, his technical quality, and of course his body is very strong.”
High praise from the man who matters most, and when the Arsenal Magazine caught up with the giant striker from Grenoble in the shadow of the Alps, he was keen to discuss his explosive return to action, which has seen him immediately reinstated as the manager’s favoured central option for our myriad of midfield talents to anchor their attacks around.
Firstly Olivier, the season started so well for you with the Community Shield. What memories do you have from that day?
I remember that I came back from holidays not long before that game, along with Lolo [Laurent Koscielny] and Debuch [Mathieu Debuchy]. So I was maybe not totally ready to play a game like this one but I was so happy to come back to Wembley, to get all the great memories of our FA Cup back. The feeling was great when we arrived at the stadium. We won, against Manchester City as well and I scored a nice goal not long after coming on as a sub. So it was a great afternoon.
For a striker, scoring in his first game of the season must be pretty special?
It’s always ideal. You are back, you play a few minutes and you hit a shot in the top corner against Manchester City! It’s hard to do better than that! I knew that, afterwards, things would get more difficult because I was late in my preparation due to joining the team late after the World Cup. I knew I had to work even harder after the Community Shield.
Did you have to prepare yourself for a tough few weeks in a post-World Cup year?
The seasons coming after a World Cup or a Euros are always a bit more difficult. You have a shorter pre-season, shorter holidays – you need to adapt yourself to that and your body has to as well. Things are easier in the summers with no international competitions. For example, when I signed for Arsenal in the summer 2012, after the Euros, I also had to catch up with the squad, get the rhythm back.
Then came the Everton game. You scored but you also got injured. With hindsight, what do you make of that day?
The boss told me I would be on the bench because he felt that against Besiktas, three days earlier in the Champions League play-offs, I was still missing something physically. He said it was normal for a player who went far in the World Cup. I was disappointed. I wanted to start. But when I came on at half time I was soon involved, played well and scored the equaliser late in the game. I felt really good, until the injury.
When you think about the injury today, do you regret going for the block? Do you blame yourself for the injury?
No, I think it was destiny. I was just unlucky. We came back to 2-2 after being 2-0 down. Aaron has a chance to win it. And then, I go and press, I block the ball. I never thought I would have got an injury like this. It shows that you are never safe. When a few days later, the doc told me about the extent of the injury, I was a little shocked. There is always worse than you though so I quickly got my head around it and went to work to come back as soon as possible.
Laurent Koscielny said that you would come back stronger after your injury? It looks like he was right...
This kind of injury makes you think about a lot of things. You watch your mates play for some weeks and when you come back, you’re hungry for some football. You’re really eager to get back on the pitch. It was essential. I also worked very hard physically with the physios and fitness coach. I don’t feel any pain anymore, even if my ankles are a bit sore sometimes, but that has always been the case in my career. So I came back stronger, with even more determination to bring a lot to the team.
What did you have in your mind during those weeks out?
There were a lot of things: I wanted to come back stronger, I wanted to get back in the French national team too and all of that could only happen through good performances with the team. Alexis was playing very well and I was desperate to play alongside him, and alongside Danny too. And I had a lot of fun with them when we all started up front at West Bromwich for my first start after the injury.
It was your first really big injury as a professional. Did that make it easier to deal with?
I had a problem with my meniscus when I was 19, at the start of my career, and it took me three good months to come back and the pain was still there. So that was an ordeal. But then I had nothing for 10 years until the Everton game! I loved playing every game. I’m quite impatient as well so it was difficult to watch the team play, to not be involved. I worked really hard mentally as well as physically. It is behind me now. I am lucky enough to be quite strong physically anyway and don't getting injured much. So hopefully, it won’t happen again!
You showed a lot of determination to come back earlier than planned. How did you channel this determination?
I didn’t actually come back that much earlier than planned. The thing was, I felt really good straight after the surgery. I respected and did everything I was told to do. I worked hard and thanks to everybody around me, I managed to be ready for the game against Manchester United on November 22. I still have the date in my head. When I got injured, I looked at the fixtures and I said: I will be there for this match. So it was cool to be part of it.
This determination, is it something you have in you? Is it in your family? Or did you develop it through your career because nothing came easy for you?
I’m not sure if it’s a family thing as my parents are quite chilled and laid back, even if they have strong characters. My brother is really determined though so maybe I get it from his influence. Usually, I am quite cool. I never feel much pressure. However, throughout all my career, I always had to prove something so doors would open for me. I’m proud of it today. It enabled me to always get that little extra thing to get to the level I wanted to be at. It’s part of me. It’s good to have gone through all of that. I will never forget it.
You only started in Ligue 1 at almost 24. Did you feel at times like you had to make up for the time lost?
It never felt like a revenge on something. It was just something that progressed. When I signed my first professional contract, it was not an obsession. I knew things would come stage by stage if I worked hard and had the right people around me. I managed to have two good seasons in Ligue 1, especially the second one. But my dream was always to come here to Arsenal and discover English football.
But do you have that feeling that you have come a long way?
Definitely. Today, I am really proud of what I have achieved. I’m proud to have proved the people who didn’t believe in me initially wrong. Things like that happened to a lot of players. To be where I am now compared to where I started is a good destiny.
Do you feel at your peak now at 28?
Well I have improved so much since joining Arsenal but I still think I can improve even more. And I have to if I’m to help the team even more in achieving its objectives.
The goal against Manchester United, for your first game back after the injury – did it feel like a turning point?
I think so. It was an incredible feeling. I am back, I come on, I am running everywhere and I hit that volley that goes straight into the top corner! David de Gea came to me after the game and told me: “Well done, there was nothing I could do!” It was nice although I would have rather us winning or drawing the game. I had so much energy in me. I needed something like that. Since moving here, it is true that I hadn’t scored much against teams from the top five so on that level, it was important as well.
And then you never looked back after that, scoring as well against Liverpool and Manchester City...
It was very important to be decisive in those big games. We needed points and I showed that the team could rely on me to be decisive in those games. We drew at Liverpool and we won at City, which was great. Every striker wants to shine in those big clashes. It’s wonderful because it’s a big boost in confidence and morale.
It’s not all been positive since your return – your red card against QPR seemed really out of character. What happened?
I got scared when their player pushed me because I thought I could have hurt myself badly in a clash with the goalkeeper. That’s why I reacted so badly. I shouldn’t have and I regretted it but I believe what he did was dangerous as he didn’t need to push me. Since then we have had two recent examples of similar actions. Debuch got seriously injured because of a push by a Stoke player when there was no need for him to be pushed away. It was the same for Danny against Tottenham when Rose pushed him towards Lloris and he got hit by his knee. But of course that incident was wrong from me and not a good example.
The boss said recently that you are now his first choice centre forward and that you have improved a lot lately. How does that make you feel?
It always great to hear from the boss. I feel also that I have improved a lot already this season. The boss is making me work daily on my technique. It’s never easy for tall players to have quick feet so I’m working hard on that. As a target man, I need to be good in my movement, not just be capable of holding the ball up. I really want to keep improving to do even more for the team.
You said earlier that you have missed playing for France. What does it mean for you to wear the blue shirt?
I love playing for my country – it’s a real source of pride and it’s true I have missed it. I need to keep playing well for Arsenal and I am hoping that Didier Deschamps will call me back for the two games at the end of March.
How does it feel to be part of that team?
It feels good. We had a great World Cup and we need to keep that momentum. We have a great team spirit, we enjoy being together. We put on some good performances on the pitch. We have an identity and a style of play too. One of those games at the end of March is against Brazil at the Stade de France.
Do you remember what you were doing in 1998 when France beat them in the World Cup final?
Of course! Every French person remembers where they were. I was in the south of France at my cousin’s house. I watched the final there. It was magnificent and exciting. I was only 12 but it made me so proud. Everybody remembers Zidane’s two goals but the counter-attack for the third goal and the pass from Patrick to Manu was amazing too. No one expected them to win it, they weren’t favourites but they won it! Hopefully, we could do the same at the 2016 Euro at home as well. We will prepare ourselves well with all the friendlies we are playing in and not put ourselves under too much pressure. Playing Brazil in March will be a big test for us. I can’t wait.
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