As Milan announce the signing of Olivier Giroud from Chelsea, Oli Coates asks whether the French World Cup winner is going to follow in the footsteps of Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Mario Mandzukic.
Milan have made a habit of signing veteran strikers in recent years. Giroud becomes the third striker aged 34 or over to join the Rossoneri in the last 19 months. The first two of those signings proved to be polar opposites, with Ibrahimovic lighting up San Siro and Mandzukic making little impression on his return to Serie A. So, whose footsteps will Giroud follow in?
The Frenchman is cut from a similar cloth as Mandzukic in terms of his willingness to sacrifice himself for the team. We saw that most notably at the 2018 World Cup, when despite playing in all seven of France’s matches, Giroud failed to score a single goal himself.
Despite that, the 6’4” striker received widespread praise for his unselfish performances. Having a tall, physical target man up front allowed the more dynamic duo of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to flourish. They both scored four goals apiece at the tournament, with Mbappe named Best Young Player and Griezmann winning the Bronze Ball award.
At Milan, there are a number of players who may be able to profit from Giroud’s presence in the team, including the likes of Rafael Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers and the inbound Brahim Diaz. The question though, is how Giroud can play in a forward line which also contains the mercurial Ibrahimovic.
Despite turning 39 last October, Ibra has scored 25 goals in 37 Serie A appearances for Milan since returning to San Siro at the end of 2019. He continues to be the main man, with Milan’s table-topping form clearly dropping off last season when he got injured. Ibra has 67 goals in 98 league games over two spells with Milan, referring to himself as a supercar in the past.
Ibrahimovic took a pop at Pep Guardiola for his ill-fated spell at Barcelona by stating: “You bought a Ferrari, but you drive it like a Fiat.” Giroud was the subject of similar language last year when Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema lashed out in saying: “You can’t confuse and F1 car with a go-kart.” Perhaps more pertinently though, Benzema went on to acknowledge that Giroud “occupies defenders and it works,” while also noting the space he creates for his team mates.
The issue at Milan, is that Ibrahimovic is able to fulfil a similar role. He doesn’t need someone to occupy defenders for him, which begs the question whether Giroud is coming in to play with or instead of Ibra. Although there are sure to be occasions when both are on the pitch, it’s more likely to be the latter.
As such, there’s going to be real pressure on Giroud to perform when named in the starting line-up. With Ibrahimovic hitting the big 4-0 later in the year, he will surely need to be more than the super-sub he has often been both for Chelsea and previously at Arsenal.
In essence, Giroud is arriving in Milan to do the job Mandzukic proved incapable of last term. The Croatian forward signed for the Rossoneri in January of this year, with the option for another season. Milan didn’t take that up after the former Juventus and Bayern Munich man failed to score a single goal in 11 appearances for the club.
Troubled by niggles, nine of Mandzukic’s 10 Serie A appearances were from the bench. Giroud has been brought in to make much more of an impact, as he managed to do on many occasions for Chelsea after moving to Stamford Bridge on transfer deadline day in January 2018.
He may only have started 33 Premier League matches during his spell in west London, but he made a total of 119 appearances for Chelsea, scoring an impressive 39 goals. If he can make a good number of appearances for Milan, filling in for Ibrahimovic when needed, and average a goal every three games, he will be a success at San Siro.
Playing the role of understudy will be nothing new for Giroud, yet there’s a good chance he will be able to force his way into Stefano Pioli’s starting XI if he produces the goods. Let’s not forget, it was only five months ago that Giroud scored a stunning overhead kick as Chelsea beat Atletico Madrid 1-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Thomas Tuchel’s Blues went on to win the tournament, with Giroud an unused substitute in the Final against Manchester City. Whether he plays a starring or supportive role at Milan, Giroud will be regarded as a roaring success if he’s part of a squad that delivers a first major piece of silverware for the Rossoneri since their 2011 Serie A triumph.
There are few players who can follow in the footsteps of Zlatan. Giroud should have few problems in going far beyond Mandzukic’s contribution to Milan, but his time at San Siro is likely to be judged on how he dovetails with Ibrahimovic, both on and off the pitch. If he gets plenty of game time, it’s not hard to see him getting close to Ibra’s average of 0.68 goals per game across his two spells with Milan.