When Olivier Giroud charged down Sylvain Distin’s clearance on Saturday evening and collapsed to the ground in a crumpled heap adjacent to the away end, I barely flickered in recognition. Partly because I’d yet to psychically realign with planet earth after the Frenchman’s equaliser. But also because it’s easy to be blasé about the sight of Olivier Giroud’s anguished features and flicky hands.
Despite the regularity with which that brow furrows and that wrist threatens to take off into orbit, Giroud has proved to be quite the physical specimen. Seemingly carved from titanium, the Gunners frontman is able to be able to withstand game after game of tremendous physical punishment without injury. Distin’s clearance proved to be one assault on his limbs too many and when he hobbled away from Goodison, Arsenal’s season changed.
But have Arsene Wenger’s plans in the market changed? It’s the question tripping from a million typewriters. The clamour for Arsenal to buy another striker in light of Giroud’s absence has long since surpassed feverish. Personally, I have my doubts that we will see another forward arrive this summer. The manager’s decision to start Alexis upfront against Besiktas and leave Sanogo on the bench nourished the seeds of doubt in my mind.
Arsenal have been somewhat accustomed to playing with a target man since signing Olivier Giroud and even before that, we saw something similar with Emmanuel Adebayor. Wenger’s solution when Adebayor left was to turn Robin van Persie into a striking spearhead, which wasn’t without success. The Dutchman described his role as a “kind of 9 and a half.” I have always felt that Wenger has rather reluctantly fielded a muscular target man as his striker until he could find the sort of fluidity in his frontline that was so evident in his best teams.
‘The Invincibles’ never played with a target man. They didn’t need to because their movement was so good. Wenger abandoned his pursuit of Gonzalo Higuain last summer when he, mistakenly as it turned out, believed Luis Suarez was available. That wasn’t just because Suarez is a better striker than Higuain, but because the Uruguayan fits Wenger’s idyllic vision of the complete centre forward. Someone that plays all across the line and can at once perch on the shoulder of the centre half and skin a hapless full back.
Basically, unless Wenger finds a very good striker that fits the profile of Giroud, I can’t see him paying money for a wiry forward when he has Alexis. My totally uninformed hunch is that Wenger’s plan has been to gradually turn Alexis into Arsenal’s central striker. I think the prospect of Alexis and Walcott, once fit, swapping the right wing and centre forward role persistently throughout a game, with the likes of Özil and Cazorla supplying ammunition, might just be how Wenger envisages his team’s evolution.
If Wenger spends big on a more kinetic striker, the system would still have to be tweaked and there would be an adaption period required. My gut feeling is that Wenger will simply expedite the plan to play Alexis through the middle and accept the growing pains he already needs to tackle. If the manager can find someone he likes for a reasonable price he may be inclined to add, but such an occurrence seems fanciful to me at this stage of the window- especially with selling clubs acutely aware of our situation. Wenger clearly hasn’t found one yet this summer and his pursuit of the likes of Higuain, Suarez, Draxler and Alexis in the last year suggests he’s open to adding the right player to his forward line.
I’m certain the plan would have been to blend Alexis into the number 9 or “kind of 9 and a half” role incrementally. People often forget that the first 6 or 7 games of Thierry Henry’s Arsenal career were served on the left wing. Wenger introduced him to the centre forward role slowly. Alexis likes to play all across the front line, as Tim Vickery outlines here and I think that fits Wenger’s vision for his ideal forward line a little more than a traditional target man. Suarez and Aguero are two of the best centre forwards in the world and neither is asked to hold the ball up or play with his back to goal.
If I am correct in my assumption and the transition works, Olivier Giroud might have unwittingly seen his Arsenal future this weekend. A good, solid, Plan B when things aren’t quite working out. Of course it will take time for the team to get used to Alexis and his movement and vice versa. Too often against Everton and in the first half against Besiktas, the Chilean drifted deep for the ball, simultaneously leaving the penalty box rather barren and crowding an area already well attended to by the likes of Wilshere, Chamberlain, Özil and Cazorla.
In that respect, there was a sort of half irony to him taking the ball off of Wilshere’s toes when he opened his Arsenal account against Besiktas. On this occasion, Jack was very much in Sanchez’s territory and the former Barca man pulled rank to give the Gunners a precious goal. In the first half, Alexis had the least touches of any Arsenal man, receiving possession seven times less than Arsenal’s second most ball shy player. Besiktas’ centre backs were not pressured in possession and allowed to pick their passes under little duress.
In the second half, the Chilean played much closer to Besiktas’ centre halves and, buoyed by his goal, his performance improved markedly. He occupied the opposition defence, showing a mixture of upper body strength and nimble feet. Walcott’s return could free Alexis to drop deep to collect possession, with Theo potentially moving in behind him to give opposing centre halves something to think about whilst his fellow speedster is taken with wanderlust.
Since the signing of Giroud, Walcott’s brief has been very much not to involve himself in Arsenal’s build up play but to concentrate on being both an outlet and a finisher. With Alexis playing across the frontline and dropping deep into pockets of space, Walcott also has the chance to take up the central positions he craves. It will take time for this understanding to brew of course. This average position map from the Crystal Palace game shows you some of the consequences of unfamiliarity in attacking areas.
Giroud’s injury probably means that the manager will have to hurry his attacking vision (or at least my uninformed estimation of it) along. We saw something similar when Özil came into the team last season and for a while, Cazorla struggled to recalibrate into more of a traditional midfield role. Now they swap positions to much greater effect, as demonstrated when the pair dovetailed so nicely to tee up Aaron Ramsey at Goodison.
Whilst the clamour for a striker is understandable, Arsenal were the 7th most prolific team at creating goalscoring chances last season. That’s partly because of the “rope a dope” defensive style we deployed, but it also suggests our attack can be prone to predictability. Arsenal have added Cazorla, Özil and Alexis in consecutive summers. I think once the bond between those players, along with more direct threats such as Ramsey and Walcott, begins to strengthen, we’ll see something closer to Arsene Wenger’s ultimate vision for his forward line. LD.
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