Sunday, October 2, 2022

Forwards To Love

As high profile departures go, Alexis Sanchez’s was met with more of a shrug of indifference than I was expecting. Ordinarily, any Arsenal player that joins a domestic rival becomes the target of an expanding canon of derogatory songs, yet barely a whisper has been raised inside the stadium since his departure.

Maybe it’s because Arsenal fans are more immune to players joining other Premier League sides by now. Many fans had started to become frustrated by his wastefulness and, in truth, there is such an air of disengagement in the fanbase at the moment that apathy has become a kind of wallpaper for all of our collective actions.

There is also a more obvious reason that the fans and, in concert, the team have moved on pretty quickly from Sanchez. The Gunners signed Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in January to replace him. Alexis was fairly unique in that he was a prolific creator and scorer of goals and it was always going to take two players to replace his qualities.

Sanchez was such a dominant player that the team really began to dance to his beat, so his removal was always going to result in a revolution of kinds. What is interesting, is that Arsenal sold their top 3 goalscorers from last season in January and look no worse off in attack. You could argue that they look better, with 16 goals scored in their last 5 home games.

The immediate signings of Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan helped the supporters to move on fairly quickly (in truth, they had started to disengage from the Chilean before he left), but they have immediately replaced his level of end product. Aubameyang has 6 goals in 7 games since arriving, which is not a huge surprise given his track record.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan was seen as more of a flight risk (were we getting the Dortmund version or the Mourinho worn, Manchester United replicant?) but his directness and end product have added to the team. The Armenian has 2 goals and 6 assists since joining. Essentially, Aubameyang has replaced Alexis’ goals and Mkhitaryan has taken up the creative slack.

Mkhitaryan has also proved to be a welcome ally for Hector Bellerin. Playing largely on the right hand side of the attack, Mkhi offers companionship to Hector on that flank. At times, Bellerin has looked so lonely on that touchline that it’s a wonder that he hasn’t created a tinder profile. Thankfully for him, Mkhitaryan has ‘swiped right’ on the Gunners attack.

He is also adept at getting to the by-line for the pull-back, which is Wenger’s favoured corridor of opportunity. It’s a significant bonus that he and Aubameyang have an existing relationship from Dortmund. Their immediate impact demonstrates the benefit of buying seasoned 29 year olds- not least when you are replacing a seasoned 29 year old.

Had Arsenal been successful in their pursuit of Malcom, for instance, they might have felt a longer term benefit, but there would have been a short term levy to pay for his adaptation. The sales of Giroud and Walcott were also significant as the Gunners burned down their attack and started again.

In essence, I think Arsenal and Giroud had simply grown apart and his qualities did not need to be replaced directly. Chelsea have struggled to truly appreciate the Frenchman’s gifts and simply opt to throw him into the dying embers of a game to chase a lost cause. It’s not too dissimilar to the unrewarding role he had begun to play at Arsenal.

His presence coerces a team into a certain style that didn’t really suit Arsenal and his departure was more of a natural evolution. The train was in motion before January. The same can be said of Theo Walcott, who had long since fallen out of favour. Yet, in many ways, his skillset is the most difficult to replace.

Arsenal are not exactly flush with natural wide forwards, let alone goal scoring wide forwards. I wrote last week about how Danny Welbeck should aspire to replace Theo as the Gunners’ goal threat from a wide forward position and Sunday was a good audition in that respect. Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger has hinted that Aubameyang could be the one to step into Theo’s shoes, with Lacazette playing a sort of Roberto Firmino like role in the centre.

Adrian Clarke described Welbeck and Aubameyang’s partnership in terms of an old fashioned front two in his Breakdown of the Southampton game. This perhaps offers us an interesting glimpse into the future, as the manager looks to accommodate Lacazette and Aubameyang in the same team revolutionising the construct of the Arsenal attack further.

I think a move to this system would also suit Welbeck, who thrives as a foil for a more assertive strike partner as he did on Sunday. He tends to struggle as a lone centre forward, when the onus is on him to lead the line and be the principal thrust of the attack. Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil are more permanent pillars of the Arsenal attack and they have also slightly expanded their responsibilities in recent weeks.

Within days of Sanchez’s sale, Mesut Özil signed a new contract with the club. As I wrote in February, Alexis’ departure means that Mesut is no longer sharing top billing in the Arsenal team. The kind of subconscious creative tension between those players has gone and the German has the keys, the lease and the furniture where this team is concerned.

He always reserved a measure of freedom to roam, but without Sanchez, his canvas is a little larger. Anam from Arsenal Column wrote an excellent piece recently about how Özil has complete liberty to adjust his positioning as the pattern of the game demands. It is no longer a case of Sanchez slightly left with some drifting privileges and Özil slightly to the right with a warrant to roam. Now he is allowed to cover the entire pitch.

Without Giroud in the team, there is less need for Sanchez’s “finishing move”, the lofted cross towards the back post on the right hand side. Özil is able to take up this responsibility from both the left and right half spaces. Ramsey has been able to replace some of Sanchez’s more bombastic qualities too, not least the high shot volume that Alexis was famed for.

A common thread binding Europe’s most prolific goalscorers is their high shot volume and Alexis subscribed to this doctrine by shooting regularly. Ramsey has picked up this baton somewhat but, crucially, like Sanchez he has resisted the urge to take pot shots from all angles. He generally makes sure that he is in a good position to pull the trigger.

This is very useful in an Arsenal team that occasionally favours finesse over force when it comes to producing goalscoring moves. Picking the lock is fine, but Ramsey’s presence means the Gunners have someone that doesn’t mind blowing the bloody doors off once in a while. (His finishing has also become a lot more considered this season, which is an entirely individual improvement).

It is too early to get carried away of course. Scoring at home against the lower lights was hardly an issue prior to the departures of Walcott, Giroud and Sanchez. Arsenal managed 4 against Crystal Palace, 5 against Huddersfield, 7 against BATE, 4 against Leicester and even netted 3 times in an otherwise miserable display at home to Liverpool prior to these squad alterations.

That said, they also scored 3 times against Southampton on Sunday without Ramsey, Özil, Mkhitaryan and with Lacazette rested to the bench. Nevertheless, this weekend’s trip to an on form, defensively sound Newcastle side will tell us a little more about whether there has been a detectable improvement in the team’s play.

How Arsenal replace Mkhitaryan in the coming weeks is an intriguing subplot for the attack, as will be the move to integrate Lacazette and Aubameyang into the same team. It’s an anti-climactic end to the domestic season given the team’s league position, but if you squint hard enough, there is something stirring in the Arsenal waters.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook

Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.

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