Generally, there are two schools of thought on Arsenal Twitter with every subject. This is certainly true with the search of a centre forward, with some thinking that Arsenal absolutely need an alternative or upgrade to 20-goal a season Olivier Giroud, while some believe that Arsenal need greater attacking fluency which could come from Alexis Sánchez playing centre forward. With Giroud absent in pre-season following his exertions with France in Euro 2016, Arsène Wenger has had to experiment at centre forward, with Chuba Akpom playing a more traditional poaching role and Theo Walcott effectively playing as a winger as a striker. On Sunday, as promised, Alexis played as Arsenal’s #9, with the performance of both the team and Alexis promising enough that it seems likely that it’ll be repeated against Liverpool.
When Alexis first joined Arsenal, he played upfront: 45 unconvincing minutes against Everton and then an excellent 90 minutes against Besiktas, when he scored. But Olivier Giroud’s injury meant Arsenal bought Danny Welbeck, and the Alexis at centre forward experiment largely ended, though he did play upfront a few more times, with Welbeck actually playing from the left.
Alexis would be the first to say that he is not a natural striker, and it is true that he is attracted to the ball and likes to come deep. But the same can be said of Robin van Persie. It is not usually remembered now, given how well he took to the role, but playing van Persie as a lone striker following the sale of Emmanuel Adebayor to Manchester City was a risk. Van Persie had been a left winger or a second centre forward at Arsenal in a 442 formation, and liked to come deep to create. This could be used to describe Alexis, and while the two are different players, there are some similarities. In many ways, though, converting Alexis should be easier because he is a goalscorer, having scored at least 15 goals in 4 of his last 5 seasons for Arsenal and Barcelona. Indeed, Alexis went on a good scoring run at the end of last season, with his runs from the right far more dangerous and penetrating, scoring against Crystal Palace, Norwich, West Ham, Watford and Manchester City. It may have been this run of form that convinced Wenger to again try Alexis upfront.
Yet if it is to work, it will need midfield and wide players who make runs behind. Alexis will never be a penalty box player, and nor should he, as it takes away two of his best attributes: his ability to dribble past players, especially in tight spaces, and his ability to create. Indeed, that he does drop deep adds to Arsenal’s fluidity, as long as he doesn’t drop too deep; to make Alexis at centre forward work is about selecting other players but also coaching him.
The areas that Alexis need coaching are in terms of movement; effectively convincing him that he doesn’t need to come so deep into midfield to get the ball. It could be a hard sell for a player who has so often been the catalyst for his team, and it’s ultimately one reason why Barcelona were okay moving Alexis on. But there is evidence from the end of last season, especially when played on the right hand side, that Alexis can limit that trait. What will also help is the ability of Arsenal to quickly play vertically, which hasn’t happened during Alexis’ tenure at the club. With Granit Xhaka one of the best at passing between the lines, and the always excellent Mesut Özil, and with Aaron Ramsey restored to the midfield, Arsenal can move the ball quickly from back to front and not get bogged down in midfield; it is when the latter happens that Alexis takes it upon himself to get involved.
One feature of Arsenal’s 3-2 win against City was the fluidity of the attacking unit, with Alexis at the heart of that fluidity. Without Özil, Alexis created two of Arsenal’s best chances—a header for Aaron Ramsey, and Theo Walcott’s goal. What was significant about both was how Ramsey and Walcott took up space that Alexis had vacated, and such off the ball running, provided by Ramsey from deep and Walcott (or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, if he continues to score as he has done in pre-season) from wide. The idea is not dissimilar to a false 9, in that a centre back either has to follow Alexis, or let him have space to either drive at the defence or play others in. If the centre back does follow Alexis, a run from behind by a midfield player takes up space, and gives Arsenal an attacking advantage. In the 2009-10 season, Arsenal played the same way with Robin van Persie, and aside from the 2013-14 season, it is the closest Arsenal have come to challenging for the league in the last 8 years.
This attacking fluidity is important, because it allows for unpredictability. Too much of Arsenal’s attacking play is predictable, especially at home, and that is one reason why Arsenal struggled for fluency so much of last season. As Wenger noted at the end of last season, it is not that Arsenal need to majorly change the way they play, but rather, become better at what they are good at—thus, attacking and scoring more goals. It has been his demand since Robin van Persie left the club, and while some may point the finger at Olivier Giroud, the Frenchman has played his part, usually scoring around 20 a season. It is instead the stylistic shortcomings of Arsenal’s attack rather than the players themselves, and by moving Alexis to centre forward, Arsenal can give themselves greater attacking fluidity and fluency without needing to overspend on average quality in the transfer market.