Arsenal’s two most significant actions in the summer transfer window were undoubtedly; keeping hold of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil and spending the guts of £50m on Alexandre Lacazette. It is therefore surprising that Özil, Lacazette and Sanchez have not yet been on the pitch simultaneously for a single minute this season.
There are a number of reasons for this, of course. Alexis and Özil picked up slight injuries during the final throes of pre-season, which is often damaging for a player’s rhythm. Arsenal’s presence in the Europa League and the League Cup means that they have a very distinct second XI at the moment and they have used it to ease Alexis into another campaign.
Alexandre Lacazette is acclimatising to the pace of the Premier League and has been substituted in each of the games he has started since the opening day. While Özil and Alexis have fine-tuned their fitness, Danny Welbeck has enjoyed an inspired start to the season, which has allowed the manager to keep Mesut and Alexis’ jets nice and cool.
Nevertheless, it does feel at least a little deliberate that the trio have passed one another like ships in the night as we move into October. On paper, there is little doubt that they are the de facto front 3- we are talking about the club’s three most expensive signings of all time after all. I have the impression that the manager did not plan to have both Sanchez and Özil for this season.
My entirely uninformed hunch is that Arsenal were always going to fight to keep Alexis, but would have been open to offers for Özil in lieu of him signing a new deal. When interest in the German was not forthcoming, I have a hunch that they panicked and began a dialogue with Manchester City for Alexis in the final days of the window.
In terms of raw numbers, the Chilean has become slightly more valuable because of his durability and because he has developed the creative side of his game. It can be frustrating to watch him drop deep to collect the ball and he does turn the ball over too often, but he created 14 goals last season. This season, even though he has lacked sharpness, he is still regularly creating gilt edged chances with disguised through balls and diagonal passes.
Put simply, Alexis scores and creates prolifically, whereas Özil’s game is heavily weighted towards the latter. Sanchez and Özil ended last season playing in inside forward roles, which worked quite well initially. It took them away from the structure of the team and afforded both players the freedom they crave to roam and find space. Alexis began to take up positions in the half spaces, which has further fed his creative game and given him a wider radar for the pass.
He has been able to slip snaking through balls into the channel between the opposition centre-half and right-back, as he did most notably for Özil against Stoke back in May. Alexis struck up a good partnership with Nacho Monreal at the end of last season too, feeding him passes that took the Spaniard towards the by-line. With a greater sharpness and better decision making than we have seen from him so far this season, one can imagine he and Kolasinac striking up a good relationship.
However, Alexis also loses possession more frequently than he ought to and with Özil detached from the midfield too, it puts pressure on the central midfield when moves break down. There is a paradox at play at the heart of the Gunners attack. Alexis and Özil generally have a good relationship and combine often. But their games are at odds with one another.
Özil’s two most convincing spells of form in an Arsenal shirt were his maiden season, before Sanchez joined. He also hit a rich vein of form during the winter of 2015 and into early 2016- when the Chilean was injured. They are both individualists (which is, in itself, a paradox given the number of goals they create for teammates and for one another), but in different ways.
Alexis is a soloist on the ball. He likes to have as many touches as possible, his personality dominates the team when it goes forward. Özil is a different type of maverick- he is a soloist off the ball. He looks to come away from the action so that he can drift into pockets of space. At his best, Mesut is the ghost in the machine, hovering around the fringes of the game, only becoming involved at the perfect moment.
I am beginning to wonder whether Arsene is having doubts about accommodating two players in free roles. His thought process has probably been altered by the way that Danny Welbeck has interpreted the inside forward position. One of Welbeck’s great qualities is his tactical malleability. No matter the shape of the attack, he is able to slot into it.
So while Theo Walcott has found himself frozen out of the 3421 system, Welbeck has been able to play the hybrid inside forward / number ten role effectively. Primarily, it’s his ability to tigerishly press opponents and force turnovers that has caught the eye. But while Sanchez and Özil play the positions quite loosely, Welbeck adds structure and dynamism.
Alexis and Özil both try to play like trequartistas, Welbeck operates more like a support striker. He has already scored three goals this season and has formed an excellent partnership with Alexandre Lacazette. The Frenchman has enjoyed Welbeck’s ability to break and run past him, keeping the pair nice and close together when the ball is in the final third, almost like a strike partnership.
For Lacazette’s strike against Bournemouth, Welbeck runs beyond the Frenchman, creating a little space before teeing him up for the shot. Danny’s striking instincts have made him an excellent foil for Lacazette, taking attention away from him. With Özil and Alexis behind Alex, he is potentially a bit of an island simply waiting for service to arrive.
For his first goal against Bournemouth, Welbeck holds his run as Kolasinac advances to the by-line, allowing the forward to arrive late and unmarked to head home. In the West Brom game on Monday, the manager was probably looking to avail of similar qualities when he chose Aaron Ramsey ahead of Özil in one of the support roles behind Lacazette.
Welbeck’s fastidiousness means that he can simultaneously play as a second striker and as a screening player when opposing defences look to pass out from the back. Neither Özil nor Alexis offer this quality out of possession. Effectively, the likes of Ramsey, Iwobi and Welbeck, who have rotated the inside forward positions in the opening weeks, are able to play a hybrid role that supports the midfield and the striker, giving the team greater structure.
The only game that Özil and Alexis started together saw the Gunners lose 4-0 at Anfield. Whilst that was very much a collective failing, I think it’s quite possible that Arsene wants at least one of his inside forwards to provide that off ball emphasis he doesn’t get from his two premium attacking forces. It feels a little like the tail end of the Highbury era, when Wenger grew reluctant to start Ljungberg and Pires at the same time.
It’s difficult to believe that this cordon sanitaire between Arsenal’s three heavyweight attackers will continue indefinitely, so they could yet find a way to dovetail effectively given the chance. But one of the few advantages of Alexis and Özil running their contracts down is that the manager does not have to handle their egos with kid gloves any longer. Nobody gives the guy serving his notice a company car.
Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck have entered the two year red zone on their contracts, it might be in Arsene’s interest tactically and politically to continue future proofing his team for life without Mesut and Sanchez. Who knows if this treaty will continue into the winter months; but for now, it seems as though Arsene Wenger cannot find space at the inn for both of his VIP guests.