Tactics Column: Alexis yet to sparkle in forward role

Arsenal tactics 2016

Arsene Wenger said that he first noticed the dearth of strikers when he tried to enter the transfer market. And indeed, such is his frustration at finding one, he is seriously considering going into second season running without addressing Arsenal’s problem position. More specifically he says, it is a certain type of striker he’s after that is in short supply.

“When I arrived in England you could see in every club a forward who could head the ball, who was dangerous on the crosses and who was highly committed physically,” Wenger said for Arsenal Magazine. “But when you look around now, you see that less. It makes you think ‘what’s going on there?'”

And he adds: “Before they were always ready for a fight. The fact they are better protected now means they score more goals, certainly, the number of people who develop that kind of aggressiveness of commitment is reduced.”

In Alexis Sanchez, Wenger believes he has that kind of striker, and in the first two games of the season, has used him in the no.9 role. The result has been mixed; good initially with runners around him as Arsenal took an early lead v Liverpool, but struggled really to affect the game later, and then in the 0-0 draw with Leicester City. Looking back at numbers, however, on Saturday, it’s astounding how involved he was. As a centre-forward, Alexis completed the fourth most passes (49/58), whilst he also created 3 chances, the most in the game. Indeed, his predilection, was to move to the left side of the pitch to pick up the ball or drop deep for it.

This was always thought to be the issue with using Alexis higher up. His tendency is to come to the ball, to be always involved, that Arsenal would cease to have a presence further up the pitch. As a result, against Leicester, Arsenal failed to create enough good chances, with Alexis initially starting the game looking to get in the box, but realised as the ball wasn’t coming to him, to drop back for it.

It’s not such a problem perhaps, with Theo Walcott able to run inside, as Wenger envisaged, and certainly the right-forward had the best chances of the game, but it required the build-up to be exact. However, that means too many things had to be perfect Santi Cazorla played too deep, and didn’t provide the drive that Aaron Ramsey did in the 4-3 defeat to Liverpool, while Sanchez’s positioning itself didn’t do enough to drag Leicester’s centre-backs out.

He tended to play just off the two defenders, about 5 yards away, but as the ball progressed up the pitch, dropped even further, meaning Wes Morgan and Robert Huth could easily pass off the responsibility to one of the central midfielders. He couldn’t provoke them to come out – nor could Santi Cazorla or Granit Xhaka zip the ball through to him in typical Arsenal way to force the centre-backs out of their area. That’s probably why Jack Wilshere entered the fray. He can drive at the centre-backs – that’s why Vincent Kompany says he’s one of the hardest opponents he’s played against – and then play quick one-twos round the corner to open up space.

Mesut Ozil also came on to provide zip to Arsenal’s play but in the end The Gunners were forced to hang on as two penalty shouts for Leicester went in their favour. The tackle by Laurent Koscielny certainly wasn’t a penalty and it backed up the splendid game he had. Returning to the side as captain, he gave an outstanding central-defensive display, constantly stepping out to intercept the ball, or coming across to cover against real pace and trickery.

He’s a big reason why Leicester didn’t create on the counter, and along with Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal (who must be given credit for limiting Riyad Mahrez to two or three sniffs at goal), formed part of a back four which is relied upon heavily. More specifically, it’s their ability to read play and intercept the danger that’s crucial because Arsenal are a horrible team defensively. It’s just that they have awesome defenders.

I didn’t analyse the Liverpool game because it really confounded me how Arsenal let their intensity drop that way. I was about to chalk it off to the shock of conceding late on in the first-half, and then, if you watch the goals, they originated from free-kicks so naturally, Arsenal could have been expected to drop off. But Arsene Wenger’s comments a few days after the game were pretty indefensible (though the players must also take responsibility), and sheds light on what happened in the second-half.

He said: “Mentally, we took a blow at half-time and we did not have the same drive we had in the first half. It’s due to two reasons especially. One was that Aaron Ramsey came back on to the pitch not exactly the same.

“We knew he had a hamstring problem and our half-time was disturbed by injury problems. We got caught cold in the first 15 minutes of the second half physically because Aaron was injured and Alex Iwobi was injured, so we were very diminished. I think we made one or two mistakes at the back that we are not used to making.”

If you look at the video above, you can actually see how deep Aaron Ramsey is playing, and as a result, it’s forced Mohamed Elneny to push out and do his job. For the third goal, he’s even motioning at the Egyptian to push out and meet his man, but by the time he’s sensed the danger, the ball is past him.

In a sense, this always highlights Arsenal’s faults when defending in a deep block; they’re often too passive to shut teams out. Subsequently, though, that’s why they rely too heavily on the anticipation of the back four (and Francis Coquelin to an extent, although he’s horrible for the two Liverpool goals). That’s also the reason why Rob Holding started at Leicester: his reading of play and meeting of the ball is far superior to Calum Chambers.

At the final whistle, the draw with Leicester seemed fair. The cutting edge was obviously lacking, and the hope is that surely Alexis can add the runs to his game that are missing right now. Certainly Wenger believes so, saying that Alexis’ timing is of the very best, and he showed that in his stint on the right of the attack last season.

Presently, he only tends to come alive on the counter-attack, but with the space ahead of him, it’s a fight to keep him away from the ball.

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