Monday, May 20, 2024

Which Striker? (Guide to the Galaxy)

June has yet to make way for July, yet this is already my third article of the close season about Arsenal and centre forwards. As many a lovelorn individual will tell you, increased desperation does not mean increased availability. Jamie Vardy has already flashed his ring finger at Arsenal this summer. That Arsene Wenger was willing to part with around £25m for a 29 year old with Vardy’s, ahem, ‘character flaws’ illustrates the paucity of fish in the sea.

A glance at Euro 2016 reinforces this imbalance between bait and biters. International powerhouses such as Germany and Italy are forced to creatively circumnavigate their centre forward deficit. Arsene will need to make contingencies because it is very difficult to imagine that an ‘elite’ striker will be attainable in this transfer window. So, what are his options in that eventuality? He has some, none of them entirely appealing, but his job will be to make the least worst choice from the following.

Realistically, Olivier Giroud belongs to Europe’s swathe of ‘Category B’ strikers. There are enough decent songs there for a solid greatest hits and you might catch the show at a festival, but not enough to inspire lavish devotion and intimate knowledge of B sides and bootlegs. He’s the Stereophonics of centre forwards.

But the ‘problem’ Giroud gives Arsenal is not so much one of quality, or lack thereof. It’s that his style is not entirely synched with Arsene’s attacking vision. This is why Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, Gervinho and Alexis Sánchez have all been afforded opportunities to relegate the Frenchman to the bench. At their attacking best, Wenger’s teams are quick, slick, mobile and interchangeable.

For all of the obvious qualities he does possess, Giroud is none of those things. His presence forces Arsenal to play in a slightly different style that just does not suit them as well. For all of the frustration over Giroud’s profligacy and bouts of moon faced melancholy, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott are no more clinical in front of goal. In fact, Welbeck is probably less clinical and poses a reduced goal threat compared to Giroud.

However, the team play better with Welbeck upfront. (They did with Walcott last autumn too, before his form and confidence somersaulted off of a cliff). His movement in the channels allows Alexis to propel himself into more central positions. He acts as a decoy and gives Özil a couple of moving targets in the penalty area, which lubricates Arsenal’s attacking play. Instead of upgrading on Giroud, Arsene might just have to focus on replacing Danny Welbeck.

Welbeck is, like Giroud, a ‘Category B’ striker, but one that happens to help the team function a little better. Arsenal might have to settle for a replica, a striker that can work the channels and provide greater movement for Arsenal upfront, even if he isn’t quite the vintage of forward we would like in an ideal world. The links with Alexandre Lacazette could make sense in this particular spirit of compromise.

Not necessarily a mutually exclusive option, compared with the others posited. Arsenal could take a two pronged approach to the centre forward issue. They could buy a more mobile striker and supplement that with a prolific presence just wide of the centre forward. Alexis does his part in this regard, if Arsenal could find a technical counter balance for the opposite flank, with goals in his armoury to boot, the Gunners’ could increase their firepower.

Walcott and Chamberlain have failed to convince in the wide positions. Highly capable, but raw teenager Alex Iwobi eased his way into the starting XI at the end of last season so desperate were Arsenal for a potent, creative presence on one of the flanks. There seems to be more of this type of player on the market this summer and it scratches an itch that has long needed satisfying. This player could serve the dual purpose of easing the creative burden on Özil to create quality chances for Arsenal’s strikers, whilst simultaneously providing additional goal threat.

Arsene has rightfully enjoyed a reputation for unearthing forward talent. This was the man that discovered George Weah, Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Robin van Persie. He stole a march on the signatures of Eduardo da Silva and Emmanuel Adebayor before they were famous. It has been a while now since his scouting net has turned up a catch of the day.

Not being able to liberate Luis Suarez from Liverpool is not a charge I would level at the manager with any great annoyance. It is arguably a more pertinent question to ask why he was not on the case when Suarez was playing for Ajax. Obviously, by definition, excavating undiscovered talent is incredibly difficult to do, especially in this day and age. It could be that there is as much a dearth of potentially elite centre forwards as there are fully polished gems in world football at the moment.

Arsenal could opt to take a gamble on a young talent like Gabriel Jesús at Palmeiras, Marlos Moreno at Atlético Nacional or Vincent Janssen at AZ Alkmaar. The problem is that the potential of a young buck is unlikely to be realised quickly. There would also be significant pressure on slender young shoulders to become the Gunners’ knight in shining armour post haste. Any centre forward Arsenal do procure this summer will face instant scrutiny, a pressure that would be borne more favourably by a mature player.

In Alexis and Theo Walcott, Arsenal have a pair of players that could theoretically operate as a second striker in a front two. You get the impression that Giroud would provide an excellent foil for a dedicated strike partner. In their Euro 2016 clash with Ireland last weekend, France moved Antoine Griezmann inside to partner Giroud at half-time and instantly became more threatening, with the Atleti forward orbiting around the Arsenal target man.

Arsene could decide that he has the raw materials to play with a front two on a more regular basis. The cons of this approach have significant implications for Arsenal’s style. For a start, it is largely a “kitchen sink” option. Wenger moved to 4-4-2 with Sanogo and Giroud as a pairing as they trailed in the 2014 FA Cup semi-final and final- the most nuclear of nuclear options. Enacting this approach means you sacrifice some control of the midfield and that is a significant compromise for a side like Arsenal.

Perhaps more significantly, you can’t really play Mesut Özil in a four man midfield. He requires a freedom that a four man structure cannot legislate for unless you play him out wide. That would neuter his effectiveness and his proclivity to drift inside would congest Arsenal’s attacks. Özil, Alexis and Giroud would end up playing very close together, which would restrict the scope of Arsenal’s forward play. A good 4-4-2 requires width.

None of these solutions is ideal, but neither is the situation. The successful acquisition of Jamie Vardy would have carried several caveats as it is and now we are one option further down Arsene’s wish list. I think my preference, in the event that the manager cannot enlist or uncover a striking gem, would be to replace Welbeck and go supersize on a wide forward. If the desert cart is bare, make sure you get the starter and the main right. Of course, that is easy for me to say, sat at the table peering at my menu. The reality is more complicated for chef Wenger.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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