At the outset of the 2014-15 season, Arsene Wenger briefly experimented with his system, moving Mesut Özil into a wide left position. He did this partly because Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla were all available and he wanted to up the team’s creative potential. But shifting the German to a wider position was a tacit admission that playing him centrally comes with a tactical tariff.
Wenger soon abandoned the experiment, partly because Ramsey and Wilshere’s respective fitness levels faltered. But he also likely reasoned that Mesut’s productivity in a central role outweighed the defensive issues his presence creates in a three man midfield. Earlier this season, Michael Cox observed that Özil is the only true number 10 in the top flight and one of the few at the top level in Europe.
Playing Özil in Arsenal’s system means that they effectively play with a midfield pairing in an environment where pretty much every other team around them opts for a trio. After fiddling with the ingredients, Arsene decided that he was prepared to turn most games into a midfield knife fight because Özil deals in the priceless currency of creating goalscoring opportunities on a regular basis. Put simply, placing your best player in the centre of the pitch optimises his attributes and a player of his quality is worthy of this treatment, even if it has residual effects on the structure.
During this year, Arsene has set about buying central midfielders that can allay for Özil’s lack of defensive output. That’s part of the reason that he values the energy and off ball omnipresence of Coquelin so much. Ramsey’s energy is also very valuable. Aaron spent some time playing from the right hand side, but a large part of his role was to drop back into the midfield to create an extra body.
Wenger purchased Elneny for his energy levels too, in Xhaka and Cazorla, he has a pair of midfielders that are incredibly economical in possession. They feed Özil with what Wenger this week labelled “moderate value passes from low to high midfield.” It seems unlikely that the manager will shift Özil from his enganche throne again.
The decision to play Alexis as a centre forward at the start of this season was probably not as considered as the one to retain Mesut in a number 10 role. The doomed approach for Jamie Vardy this summer suggests as much. It was likely a move borne of circumstance, but the principle is proving to be very similar in practice. Alexis has equal billing alongside Özil as the team’s foremost player, so moving him into a more central role makes a lot of sense for the same reasons it made sense for Özil.
Whilst overall team balance is incredibly important, sometimes it is just as simple as putting your best players in the places where they can be involved most often. After a few seasons wandering around in a free role from the left, Arsenal worked out that the base of the midfield is Santi Cazorla’s best position. Broadly speaking, with everyone fit (!), the team’s spine reads: Koscielny, Cazorla, Özil and Alexis. That’s more or less the four most valuable players playing in a straight line up the pitch.
Arsenal’s shape is veering incredibly close to a 4-4-1-1 at times. In fact, off the ball, that seems to be the de facto formation. Playing Özil and Alexis closer together has obvious benefits, even leaving aside their respective quality, the two have forged a pleasing chemistry. The Chilean’s penchant for dropping back into the midfield enables Özil to get forward in his stead. Alexis has teed up the German on 3 occasions already this season and it really ought to have been four after Sanchez’s wonderful through ball for Mesut against Bournemouth on Sunday.
Alexis’ willingness to drop back into midfield is of small defensive value too. His incessant pressing of centre halves and his desire to chase back when the opposition have the ball slightly mitigates for Özil’s languid off the ball stylings. With Alexis as a false 9, Arsenal’s formation enables Alexis and Özil to swap the number 9 role (Walcott is also able to make inroads from the right). When the opposition have the ball, it almost becomes a 4-4-2-0- with two number 10s- given Sanchez’s energy levels.
It’s not quite an extra midfield presence, but, if you’ll allow slightly crude numeric logic, it almost boosts Arsenal from 2.25 bodies in midfield to 2.5. In the matches against Paris Saint Germain and Bournemouth we saw how much of a fulcrum Alexis has become as a centre forward. PSG and Bournemouth are both progressive, passing teams that move the ball via a tight midfield trio of accomplished passers.
Against the French side, Arsenal played Olivier Giroud upfront, which denied them the extra body Alexis often provides in the build-up phase. This was exacerbated by the jarring midfield combo of Ramsey and Coquelin, neither of whom are adept at building play towards the attacking sector of the team. Consequently, Özil had one of his quieter games of the season. Against Bournemouth, Arsene opted for the slightly more complementary partnership of Xhaka and Elneny.
The Gunners still had to cede a lot of the midfield to Bournemouth during spells of this game, but with midfielders capable of bringing Özil into the game and a forward like Alexis in more central areas, it was a knife fight that they could win. Through the mists of nostalgia, the Invincibles are, understandably, remembered as a side that tactically and technically steamrollered all comers. But quite often, they didn’t.
Often they were prepared to be tactically loose and rely on the power of Vieira and inspiration of Bergkamp and Henry to overcome teams. At their best this season, Arsenal’s formula has been very simple. Play Özil in a central role, with someone at the base of the midfield that can give him the ball and a player of similar quality ahead of him to combine with. It helps that that centre forward is prepared to be a constantly moving target.
To win the league this season, or at least stand a chance, Arsenal were going to have to do something different and playing Alexis at centre forward is as good a solution as any. Sanchez is not only a physically energetic player, he is mentally dynamic too, a whirlwind of ideas and instinct. He impacted the Bournemouth game on Sunday with his goals, but he also turned the momentum of the match in the first half, just as the pendulum was swinging towards the away side following their equaliser.
With the Gunners at their lowest creative ebb of the game, his shot from nowhere that smashed the crossbar instantly switched the impetus of the match. Players capable of this sort of in game alchemy need to play in the centre of the pitch, where they can do the most damage. Michael Cox referred to Alexis as ‘arguably Arsenal’s most natural leader.’ He’s quite right in his assertion and where do most great leaders play? In central areas.
There is a tactical purpose to playing Alexis upfront. The manager has been searching for a more mobile alternative to Giroud for over four years because that’s a better fit with Arsenal’s style. Sanchez’s partnership with Özil is the team’s most devastating symbiosis. Özil the considered technician, allied with Sanchez the human pyrotechnic. But sometimes you don’t need a bachelor’s degree in tactical discourse to understand and explain why something works. Sometimes it is just as simple as putting your best players where they can most involve themselves in the game.
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