As I was watching Liverpool tear apart Manchester City at the end of November, a simple thought was playing at the back of mind: Liverpool hugely benefitted that day from having a mobile centre-forward. Yes, Roberto Firmino may not be your centre-forward of choice, he is far from a finished article, he had a lot of weak performances this season, both before and after the City game (to the point when even the Liverpool fans started turning on him) and, finally, this may just have been an experiment from Klopp.
Indeed, while Klopp seems to be favouring a mobile striker overall (Robert Lewandowski to Chiro Immobile shift didn’t go down well, did it?), right now he opts for Benteke up front more and more often. In 12 league games Klopp has overseen, Benteke started exactly half – 6, with only start in the first 5 games, meaning 5 in the next 7. To me that looks like Klopp wanted to play with a pacy striker at the outset, trying Firmino and Origi (!) up front in equal measure, but then either decided these players were not of the standard he requires (which can see him make a move for a forward this window) or simply deciding a target man would be of more use to him for now.
However, I’m not here to talk about Klopp and his methods. Rather, I wanted to point out that Liverpool’s most scintillating performances this year happened as a result of deploying a mobile Firmino up top (the 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge and the aforementioned 4-1 drubbing of City at the Etihad just two weeks later). Of course, the wins could have been little bit accidental in the sense Klopp was an unknown quantity back then and his efficient deployment of gegenpressing coupled with Firmino up top (who never played there for Liverpool before) came as a surprise to Mourinho and Pellegrini respectively. Since then teams have adapted to this approach, utilising long balls to negate the press and catch Klopp’s men in front of the ball. I’ve veered off again. Aaargh.
The drubbing at the Etihad was as methodical and deserved as it was hyped and this got me thinking: could we attempt something similar at Arsenal? I’m not talking about gegenpressing, hamstrings seems to be popping like champagne bottles on New Year’s Eve from that; I’m talking about a mobile striker up top. Or, rather, about a fluid front three, which can interchange positions seamlessly and to devastating effect.
We’ve seen Theo up top, we know what he can do, we are aware of his limitations. We are a potent force with an in-form Theo spearheading our attack, however, I think another solution may be a better one. An internal solution at that, I’m not implying we should delve into the depths of the transfer market and splash on a new forward, especially at a time when really good forwards are few and far between and the forwards a class below are madly overpriced and completely unnecessary, seeing as both Giroud and Theo fit this mould. No, I’m talking about someone who’s been here for quite a while, someone who most thought would play at centre-forward. Someone who is a better version of Luis Suarez, in that he is more effective and less bitey. His name is Alexis Sanchez (so much drama for a title that will give it away :)).
I was watching with interest the ending of our 3-0 win over Dinamo Zagreb. As the game was drawing to a close, Arsene Wenger took off Giroud to give him some rest and moved Alexis to the centre-forward position. This was, I think, partially dictated by Theo’s absence. Wenger wanted to see how we’d fare if something (God forbid) happened to Giroud. He wanted to look at our other options. Campbell was still mostly on the fringes back then, Oxlade is no centre-forward and with Welbeck and Walcott still out, Sanchez was the only viable alternative left.
However, I’m inclined to think it wasn’t just a rehearsal for the worst-case scenario. It was another look at what Alexis can offer us up front. Alexis certainly didn’t disappoint in his 10-minute spell up top that night, but, unfortunately for everyone concerned, the Chilean pulled his hamstring against Norwich 5 days later, leaving us to rely on the ever-reliable Olivier Giroud. The Chilean hasn’t played since then, though all going well should return in time to face Sunderland (*knocks on wood*). As this game has been earmarked for rotation and Olivier Giroud needs a breather the most, I suspect we may see Sanchez start up top. Of course there’s the small matter of Theo wanting the same slice of the same pie, however, the Englishman himself may be rested for that game.
Anyway, 800 words in, I want to finally get to the crux of my article, namely: why I would give a run of games to Alexis in the centre-forward position.
He has speed and guile
Theo ticks the right boxes in the “speed” department, but he never really struck me as a player with outstanding technique on the ball. I don’t mean to say he is bad, no, however to me it looks like Alexis just has more tricks up his sleeve.
He has outstanding ball control and his dribbling ability is unparalleled among Arsenal players. The Chilean averages 3.3 successful dribbles per game, which equals 62% success rate, meaning he attempts 5.3 dribbles per game. Only Oxlade has better numbers here (3.6 successful dribbles per game, 67% success rate. However, these are the numbers from the 14/15 campaign for the Ox. In the 15/16 season, he only averages 1.5 successful dribbles per game with basically the same success rate – 68%! That means his numbers for dribbles attempted plummeted from 5.4 to just 2.2 – more than halved!)
He is selfish (in a good way)
How often have we complained of our players trying to walk the ball into the net? Even Olivier Giroud is more of a team player than a typical centre-forward. If there’s a teammate in a better position, chances are Giroud will try a pass.
That’s an admirable quality, on one hand. Football is a team game (surprise!), selfish players often harm their respective sides more than help (I’m looking at you, Barkley). However, we can’t play eleven slick passers and hope it works. We need a focal point, someone to finish off our elaborate moves.
Here Alexis Sanchez fits the bill. I took his numbers (and everyone else’s who I’ll mention later) from the 14/15 campaign. The Chilean leads Arsenal in this regard and averages 3.5 shots per game, and that’s coming from the flanks. For comparison’s sake, one of the most selfish players on Earth (Ronaldo, in case you had doubts) averaged 6.4 per game.Messi averaged 4.9, Aguero 4.5, Lewandowski 3.4, Suarez 2.9. As you can see Alexis looks decent in this company, despite being a winger.
He is involved
That’s Alexis’ trademark feature. He is always doing stuff on the pitch. He is visibly there. He is involved.
In that sense Alexis is closer to our midfielders than strikers. I’ve become accustomed to the fact that Theo and Giroud complete around 20-30 passes per game, same as Oxlade and Campbell most of the time. That’s not a criticism per se. Sometimes I’d like Ollie or Theo to get more involved in what’s going on, however their playing style is a bit different. They can have a cracking game and still record the least touches (sometimes even less than our goalkeeper!)
However, Alexis is the type of player who takes games by the scruff of the neck. He’ll bully the opposition into making mistakes, he’ll drop deep to get involved in the build-up, he’ll drift to the flanks when the situation requires that. Alexis is more adaptable, more malleable, more versatile. Getting him on the end of things is unlikely to affect his contribution in other areas, but it is a move which can see him become a complete striker, maximizing his goals output.
When we brought in Alexis Sanchez, most expected him to become our first-choice centre-forward. But our downright dreadful situation with wingers (Podolski and Campbell not contributing enough to merit a regular starting spot), coupled with injuries to Giroud and Walcott, not only saw Alexis on the wing, they also made us go and buy Welbeck. Welbeck, who staked a claim at CF, and one of the conditions upon he joined may, I suspect, be linked to given a run as a striker.
The situation hardly improved in the 2nd half of the campaign (though Giroud returned), so Alexis continued to ply his trade on the wing. However this season I think Arsene may give Alexis another try at centre-forward. Walcott, Oxlade and Campbell are all fit and ready to contribute on the wings, meaning Wenger has options. The return of our centre midfielders and Rosicky will provide him with options further still.
All that’s left is the desire of both the manager and player to stage the experiment. An experiment with the potential of becoming a resounding success. After all, it’s not like Arsene doesn’t have a track record of converting wingers.