Arsenal’s striker situation has generated many column inches over recent weeks. The failure to find that centre forward dog in the window, multiplied by the Gunners’ early season struggles in front of goal have kept keyboards clacking with conjecture. Arsenal’s swift quiescence to Theo Walcott’s wage demands was a neon signpost that there were no strikers at the transfer inn this summer, as far as Arsenal were concerned.
The manager, cognizant of this fact, has spent much of the summer talking up ‘operation internal solution’ when it comes to increasing Arsenal’s firepower. Whilst the world talks strikers, Wenger looks to be concentrating on what happens behind his centre forward weapon of choice- be it Giroud or Walcott on any given day. Arsenal’s formation is fairly malleable, even within the framework of a 90 minute match. But for the most part, I have observed a 4-2-3-1 shape and I think it is the 3 behind the tip of the arrowhead where the manager is trying to mould his attacking clay.
Coqzorla is the rhythm section of the midfield, Coquelin crashes the cymbals whilst Cazorla provides the groove. It’s a relatively stable platform. Giroud and Walcott are prosaic strikers, both offer a very specific skillset and there seems little point in instructing them to do anything other than play to their very obvious strengths. However, the trio that float around behind the main striker have been a real point of intrigue this season. Alexis Sanchez was Arsenal’s top scorer in 2014-15, whilst Aaron Ramsey was the Gunners’ principle goal threat in 2013-14. (Were it not for a long term injury, he surely would have surpassed Giroud as Arsenal’s top scorer in that campaign).
The three players behind the main striker work like a contained colony, a small team within a team. A sub group if you will. How they behave seems to depend entirely on whether it was Walcott or Giroud that they are orbiting. When Giroud plays upfront, Ramsey has license to drift in from his starting position on the right. He moves over to the left to help create overloads, indeed he had a goal chalked off against Liverpool from an inside left position. Likewise, against Crystal Palace, with Giroud given the nod upfront, the Welshman was given license to drift inside.
Ramsey is a more threatening attacking presence when playing off of Olivier Giroud, which explains the greater liberty he is afforded when Olivier leads the line. Özil always principally starts in the centre of the 3, but the German regularly drifts to the flanks to find space, as he demonstrated beautifully for his pinpoint assist for Giroud at Selhurst Park. With Özil and Ramsey drifting around behind an arrowhead of Olivier Giroud, Alexis, whilst not totally without freedom, stays much closer to the flank.
Yet when Walcott starts upfront, it is Ramsey who is asked to hold shape at his post on the right hand side, whilst Alexis moves in field to support Theo Walcott and perhaps add a little of the physical element Theo lacks. The F.A. Cup Final is the most ilustrative example of this. Alexis was on hand in the 18 yard area to win an aerial challenge, which Walcott ran onto to smash Arsenal into the lead. In return, Walcott’s wing heeled presence caused hesitation in the Villa defence with Alexis a chief beneficiary. The Villa defence failed to press the Chilean as he lined up a ripsnorter from 30 yards without challenge.
Olivier Giroud has not assisted any of Alexis’ 25 Arsenal goals, whilst Alexis has teed up Giroud just twice (once from a corner) since his arrival last summer. Alexis and Giroud rarely combine in a meaningful manner. Alexis is not a particularly deft crosser of the ball and doesn’t often look to run to the by-line, which are Giroud’s favoured avenues of service. When Sanchez cuts in, or moves in field, he rarely uses Giroud as a pivot to bump one touch passes off of. I think you could argue that Alexis ought to develop a better appreciation of the service Giroud offers; it potentially creates angles for him when he drifts in from the flank.
Occasionally he does try to force the ball through brick walls, when perhaps a clever one two with Giroud could open up space. That said, Giroud’s movement (or lack thereof) does not especially free up space for Alexis either when he looks to move goalward. A conniving decoy run could equally free up space when Sanchez cuts in field with the goal in his crosshairs. The pair aren’t hugely compatible. They do not play to one another’s strengths.
Alexis moved into the centre against Stoke many times to good effect, heading a cross onto the post in the opening minutes and striking the woodwork again from a central position outside of the area. He reinforces Arsenal’s front line physically when the slight figure of Walcott leads the line, whilst Ramsey is asked to hold his position on the right because he and Theo like to occupy similar spaces in the area. Ramsey hit a brief lull in his scoring streak in the 2013-14 season when Walcott returned from injury in December 2013. Likewise, Alexis’ best goalscoring form in an Arsenal shirt arrived when Giroud was injured.
In short, Ramsey is more threatening with Giroud in the side and Alexis is livelier with Walcott ahead of him. Özil is happy to riff and rotate with either player, which is why he always starts in the centre of the three. Against Newcastle, the absence of Özil caused confusion. Ramsey, Cazorla and Oxlade Chamberlain all took it in turns to inhabit the central role and none of the three convinced there. But Alexis, with greater freedom to abandon the left flank, looked more dangerous in this match. Mesut acts as a kind of counterweight and without him; Ramsey, Santi and the Ox looked less like they were floating in synch and more like they had lost their gravity boots.
My season ticket is stationed in the upper tier and, for the majority of away matches, I am positioned upstairs too. From this vantage point I observed short spells in both the Stoke and the Newcastle matches, where Walcott switched to the right hand side with Chamberlain (at Newcastle) and Ramsey (against Stoke) very briefly turning up in the ‘false 9’ position. Özil took up a brief stint in this position in Zagreb too. This is less of an option when Giroud is preferred at centre forward, but there is a great deal of swapping that goes on within this mini structure.
Perhaps Wenger is so keen to see Walcott flourish as a centre forward because his presence allows greater fluidity for the front 4 as a whole. When Walcott plays, there is the potential for 4 tetris pieces to interchange, though Ramsey and Walcott’s roles are slightly more defined. Whereas Giroud offers a more fixed presence. That said, during his best form last season, Giroud began to show greater appreciation of space, moving into pockets of space in the channels to make room for runners.
Perhaps Alex Oxlade Chamberlain’s relative struggles this season have been a symptom of his individuality. He is a very potent weapon in individual moments, when committing a full back or cutting into shoot. But he probably needs to learn how to operate within the collective with greater perspicacity. The triumvirate that circuit behind Arsenal’s main striker are a conglomerate of organised chaos. At once they operate freely but interdependently. It is from this motherboard that Arsene Wenger will look to conjure the team’s firepower.
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