Tactics Column: Giroud bags hattrick but Alexis the main man

There were tears and cheers as the curtains came down on Arsenal’s season, though the overwhelming feeling around Emirates was surely relief. Relief that Arsenal were finally able to stave off the challenge of Sp*rs for another season, but also that such an underwhelming season has ended. Beating Aston Villa comfortably 4-0 doesn’t change the assessment of this squad. Olivier Giroud scored a hat-trick but that only served to confirm that although he is a fine striker he is not of the absolute top level.

Indeed, what revealed more about this side is the period that Arsenal didn’t score or create, in particular the 20 minutes before Giroud added his second. Here Arsenal were scrappy and inattentive as balls were lost and, actually, it was Giroud who was subject to most of the ire from the home fans who began to grow frustrated at the cumbersome way he tried to get onto the end of attacks. However, he was soon cupping his ears in celebration with two quick-fire goals, the first when he darted in at the near post to deftly guide the ball into the other corner before completing his hat-trick by latching onto a through-ball by Hector Bellerin.

His first came in the 5th minute, heading in from Nacho Monreal’s cross after four minutes as Arsenal started confidently. But while the firs -half continued in dominant fashion – if not clinical, because Arsenal were guilty of over-playing – the second-half was stop-start as injuries to Villa players upset Arsenal’s rhythm. It was after the second of such stoppages that Arsenal came alive, with Mesut Ozil geeing the crowd and then zipping a cross for Giroud to get onto and score. It was the playmaker’s 19th assist of the season, one short of the Premier League record, which in all reality, he should have surpassed weeks ago. Yet, for the all the time in this game he was unable to set-up the goal, it summed up Arsenal’s problems this season.

In truth, Ozil was also culpable, passing up good opportunities to shoot in search of the perfect goal. That is not to say, necessarily, what “expected goals” constitutes as the perfect goal, the much talked-about measurement which recommends – and which Arsenal purportedly follow – getting the ball as close to the goal as possible before shooting.

But from a stylistic viewpoint meanins quick one-twos around the box with third and fourth man runs coming from all possible angles, with a tap-in to finish it off. More often than not though, space was squeezed out. Indeed, for one move, Ozil had a chance to place the ball into the corner from the edge of the area (albeit with his weaker foot), but instead, attempted to loop the ball over the defence into the six-yard box for Alexis who was right in front of the goalkeeper.

Yet it was Alexis rather than Giroud who was Arsenal’s most significant goal threat, and during certain moments of the game, he showed visible frustrations at not scoring. He was afforded freedom to stay up the pitch because Aston Villa played a 3-5-2 with no winger to track back, though it’s likely he would have stayed up anyhow; Alexis is Arsenal’s striker on the wings with Wenger often referring to the Chilean as the player who “pushes defenders back”.

Here, he did that all game, with his movement in between the wing-back and centre-back the first run Arsenal searched for. The switch to the left flank was always on, a ploy best typified by a move which started from the back, with Santi Cazorla dropping between the two centre-backs and allowing Gabriel to step out then amazingly, Cazorla himself offering the option as the attacking midfielder between the lines. Ozil then knocks it to Francis Coquelin who’s in space and the pass allows Alexis to isolate himself 1v1 with the wing-back before ending with a shot.

That particular move is a good snapshot of how Arsenal generally build, encapsulating all the different personalities in the attack. Of course, we talk about the influence Cazorla has progressing play but you also see Gabriel showing more confidence to take the ball – he actually understands this better than many give him credit for – before Ozil is found loitering on the right flank.

When Coquelin then receives the ball free in the centre-circle he has barely moved because it’s his role to act as a decoy, essentially distracting the opposition midfielders to create space for the defenders to pass the ball out. In any case, he had a good game, making 70/76 passes as Villa opted to drop off. Wenger expected that that’s why he selected the Santi/Coquelin partnership; they tend to work best when the opponent gives them space and that then allows their respective strengths to come to the fore. Coquelin was brilliant at recovering possession in this game, whilst Cazorla’s influence on the ball was shown even by what the above video didn’t capture, as pre-move; he is cajoling and shouting at his defenders to progress up the pitch.

The move ends with Alexis shooting agonizingly wide though it was one of a number of warning signs that Villa failed to heed. He hand a hand in 3 out of 4 of the goals, involved heavily in the build-up to the first, backheeling to Monreal to cross for Giroud, before exchanging one-twos with Ozil for the second. And when Arteta’s shot was helped in by the goalkeeper Mark Bunn, it was Alexis’ cut-back that found him.

Such was his influence that one wonders what could have been had Alexis been fully fit this season. Of course, the subsequent switch to wide right after a period out seems to have altered his game, forcing him to vary his movement and realise the effect he can have on the team without the ball, instead of always looking to get involved in everything.

The tactical impact is also overlooked: for much of the season, Alexis’s partnership with Monreal is what has kept Arsenal penetrative; the area on the pitch they can fall back on whether they are chasing the game or looking to force the initiative. Indeed, 37% of Arsenal’s play comes down that side – against Villa it was less at 34% which tells you the impact Santi Cazorla had because 35% of the play went down the middle. But even then, he tended to slant his passing towards that side because Alexis draws players in.

It seems likely that at the end of the season, Arsenal will be looking for another striker but one option Wenger hasn’t tried is Alexis. He probably feels he doesn’t need to because Alexis is Arsenal’s other striker allowing the team to play close to the “traditional 4-4-2”. He didn’t score on Sunday but Wenger will be pleased with his contribution to a much-welcomed win.

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