When former Chelsea midfielder Didier Deschamps won the 1998 World Cup with France, he played behind a center forward named Stephane Guivarc’h.
If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s probably because he spent all but one season of his 13-year career in Ligue 1 and scored a grand total of 1 goal in 14 national team appearances. At the 1998 World Cup, he collected 268 minutes, scoring zero goals with just sixteen shots taken (three on target). And yet France won the World Cup. Guivarc’h did the job he was tasked to do. (He also leveraged that success into his one and only season outside of France, spending 3 months at Newcastle and 6 months at Rangers.)
Twenty years later, history may be repeating itself. Deschamps is now the France manager and is in the final four alongside Belgium, England, and Croaita. His striker, the one he’s stuck with through every match so far, save for the opener against Australia, is Olivier Giroud. Just like Guivarc’h, Giroud is almost completely invisible statistically. He’s logged 380 minutes, with seven shots, not a one of them on target. He has one assist, to Mbappé against Argentina.
And Deschamps could not care less.
“It is true Olivier has not scored yet, but - I repeat - yet. He might not have the flamboyant style of other players but the team needs him in each and every match because even if he does not score, he does many things for us.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because those very words could have been spoken by still Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte. When Giroud joined from Arsenal in January, he became the target man Conte’s attack craved. Whether or not he scored was not as important as his ability to make the entire group gel. He held the ball up, he distributed, he won headers and he occupied the centre-backs. (Giroud also made a positive impact in the dressing room, and quickly became a fan favorite as well!)
Soccer lends itself to crazy stats. Much-maligned Olivier Giroud is considered essential to France’s WC success but he and Antoine Griezmann have passed ball to each other only 9 times in 4 games. Like Lukaku on #BEL winner, Giroud gives new meaning to what you do off the ball.— Paul Kennedy (@pkedit) July 3, 2018
It sure sounds like those qualities are what Deschamps values about him too.
“Olivier is important to our team, and for our style of play. Against Argentina [in the last 16], he made an assist for Mbappe and we need this sort of supporting play.
”Of course, if he could have scored, it would have been good but he has always had an important role for us - he is always extremely generous and he does not complain when it comes to working hard.
”He is useful in attack but also, because of his game, in defence too.
”He does many things for the team to be balanced, and it is the players around him that benefit from his presence because he attracts a lot of attention from the defenders.”
-Didier Deschamps; source: BBC
Is it working?
Oh yes, yes indeed. France just dumped Uruguay and look like the strongest, most balanced team top to bottom in the tournament. They may only be the fifth-highest scoring team in Russia with 8 goals they netted themselves — Belgium lead with 13, and each side has benefitted from an own goal as well — but with their strong midfield (Kanté!) and central defence, they’re the team to beat. The longer they play, the better they look. With a center-forward who doesn’t score.
France play Belgium in the first semifinal on Tuesday. Mark your calendars.