Alexis’ Midfield Runners

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

With Olivier Giroud unavailable at the outset of the campaign, Theo Walcott no longer interested in playing centre forward and Danny Welbeck injured, Arsene Wenger’s centre forward options were somewhat limited last August. Lucas Perez did not arrive until after the third game of the season. So the manager decided to try Alexis Sanchez in a kind of false 9 role.

With the penalty box smarts of Theo Walcott to his right and the fast paced technical play of Alex Iwobi to his left, the Chilean thrived in a more central position and was retained there. Mesut Özil made plenty of goal scoring hay, moving undetected into the areas Alexis vacated. Sanchez’s spell undoubtedly coincided with the Gunners’ most effective attacking play of the season- even if it wasn’t always perfect. (Manchester United away, Middlesbrough and Spurs at home).

The experiment peaked at the London Stadium in December, when Sanchez ran riot, scoring a hat-trick in a 5-1 victory over West Ham United. The match demonstrated that Alexis remains the team’s most dangerous player between the width of the goalposts. Arsenal drifted away from using Sanchez as a centre forward during the festive period when Olivier Giroud hit a purple patch of scoring form and Danny Welbeck returned from injury.

Of course, since the New Year, Arsenal have lost their way somewhat, with their form circling the u-bend for several weeks. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, the Gunners have not simply lost their way because they have moved Alexis back to the left hand side. Arsene’s failure to find a functioning central midfield is the source of most of their woes. However, the question remains as to whether Arsenal should revert to using Sanchez in a more central role.

The quandary represents an inversion of an annual Arsenal motif. Usually, Arsene scrambles around for a tactical solution for much of a campaign, before discovering something relatively left-field for the run-in. On this occasion, the pattern is reversed. Wenger stumbled across the idea that Alexis might make a good striker early in the season, it worked for a bit, he abandoned it and has been scrabbling around for something else ever since.

Arsene recently explained that the Chilean prefers to play in a wide forward position because, “He can get more of the ball. He has to keep the balance between providing and goal scoring.” When deployed in a centre forward position, Alexis was still the team’s most productive player in terms of chances created and assists, so I am not convinced by the explanation, personally.

I am not convinced that playing out wide avails him of the ball more often than when he plays more centrally. I am also sceptical as to whether Sanchez getting any more of the ball in the build-up phase is necessarily a good thing. He is a complicated player because he is actually quite wasteful. But like his South American counterparts- Suarez, Aguero and Costa- he is so relentless that eventually he will wear opponents down.

His immoderation with the ball is a kind of tax you have to pay, because he will score or create a goal in nearly every game that he plays. (He also works pretty hard to win it back once he errs too, for what that’s worth). I think the issue is that Arsenal do not have a viable alternative to the raw talents of Alex Iwobi to make the system click.

Iwobi is akin to Tomas Rosicky because his “get ball, move ball, move arse” style quickens the Gunners’ build up play. But the Nigerian is the only player in the first team squad with that skillset, which has struck me as a major hole in the playing staff for some years now. Iwobi, when on form, connects midfield and attack and adds another layer of technical quality to the build-up.

I think Arsene has reasoned that Sanchez’s numbers remain pretty impressive when he is stationed on the left wing and playing either Giroud or Welbeck upfront just gives the team another scoring option, which makes some sense. I would argue that Aaron Ramsey could add some of that cutting edge if Alexis were moved back into a central role. The Welshman was injured for much of the time that Sanchez played upfront.

If Arsene were to retain the 3-4-2-1 system we saw against Boro on Monday, Ramsey could conceivably play a little further forward, alongside Özil with Alexis ahead of them. Spurs operate in a broadly similar way with Eriksen and Dele Alli behind Harry Kane. Alexis’ relationships with key teammates just seem slightly more dangerous to me when he is played upfront.

It puts Alexis and Özil close together for a start. Not only are they our two best players, but they share an on pitch understanding. They look for one another constantly and their relationship has never been stronger than when the Chilean was stationed centrally. Alexis is also heavily complemented by Theo Walcott, whose runs in from the right hand side help to plug the gap Alexis leaves when he goes wandering for the ball.

I don’t think it’s a big coincidence that Walcott’s form has tailed off a touch since Sanchez was moved back to the left hand side. A front three of Alexis, Welbeck and Walcott has been trialled in recent weeks. In this triumvirate, there is a lot of potential for rotation of positions, with all three players comfortable playing across the front line.

However, this orbiting of positions has not happened when the trio have been played together- presumably by instruction, which I think was a pity. One of the key assets Alexis’ spell at centre forward gave the team was dynamism. With his ability to wriggle away from pressure with his back to goal, his game had a tenet of unpredictability that other forward options lack.

His movement away from the penalty area created uncertainty for defences. In the modern game, midfield runners are just as crucial for breaking down stubborn defences as star centre forwards. Ibrahimovic has enjoyed a productive season for United, but a lack of midfield runners has blunted them. Welbeck works the channels well enough, while Olivier Giroud’s attributes are fairly obvious, but neither introduce chaos into the equation quite as well as Sanchez does.

Alexis’ relationships with Özil and Walcott seem to function better when he is played at centre forward. Francis Coquelin’s purpose has become less clear since Santi Cazorla’s injury. But without Alexis in a central role, the Frenchman’s attributes are reduced even further. With the Chilean upfront, Coquelin’s ability to press opponents high up the pitch makes a lot more sense. When Sanchez plays wide, Coquelin is denied that ally.

Though to his credit, Alexis has been able to forge a good working relationship with Nacho Monreal, which Adrian Clarke analysed succinctly in the wake of the draw with Manchester City. Previously, Alexis and Giroud was a combination that jarred in attack, with the two seldom combining in any meaningful way. This appears no longer to be the case, Sanchez’s new found penchant for clipping crosses from the corner of the area has helped rekindle their partnership.

Arsene has been making tactical adjustments, major and minor, over the last couple of months in an attempt to reanimate a team in cardiac arrest. He all but admitted that the move to a back 3 against Boro was a shock tactic. I still think sorting the central midfield holds the key to forging a competent unit out of a talented squad, but moving Alexis back into a number 9 role may provide a handy set of jump cables in the meantime.

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