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How to solve a problem like Alexis

Injury time winners and cute banner tributes to his beloved dogs won’t do any harm, but there’s another surefire way to keep Alexis Sanchez happy during these delicate contract negotiations that’s been overlooked in recent weeks.

football on pitch in stadium

Play him up front.

He absolutely loves it there. Arsene Wenger has confessed as much, and I don’t think you’ll find many Arsenal fans that would disagree their side looks more vibrant when the goal-thirsty Chilean is handed the keys to their attack. As an idiosyncratic striker, Alexis tends to present centre-backs with a ream of unorthodox issues that they don’t ordinarily encounter. His fervent pressing is unsettling and sets a terrific tempo; the angular nature of his movement opens gaps for others; his ability to instantly pirouette both ways is devilish to read; he can score from anywhere; he can find the killer pass; and in behind he poses serious menace.

How many other Premier League strikers have that list of ingredients in their make-up? Hard to read, he makes defenders think, and forces mistakes. Oh, and it’s never a bad thing to have your best player hovering around the hottest part of the danger zone either. The stats also tell their own story. In the league alone he’s scored almost twice as many as the next closest teammate in 2016-17 and he tops the Arsenal rankings for shots, chances created and assists. Back in August we didn’t know if he was capable of performing the role. Now we do. He has been an absolute revelation as the spearhead of Arsenal’s attack. With pivotal matches on the horizon, I believe now is the right time to restore him to that coveted position. That’s no slight on Olivier Giroud. I admire his all-round game, his mentality, his team ethic, and a technique that’s criminally under-appreciated.

Giroud the backup option?

But as excellently as he has performed since scoring on Boxing Day (snaring goals in five successive contests until his blank last weekend) for all the reasons I’ve listed at the top of this column, the Frenchman should still represent Arsenal’s Plan B. If he was pressed on the matter in private, I have my suspicions Wenger would agree. So why has Alexis been shunted to the left wing since Christmas?

Illness and injuries to chief midfield runners Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott have played a part in the decision-making process. When Alexis drops short and turns with the ball at his feet, no one makes runs that are more dynamic or effective beyond the Chilean than those two. In their absence, general play was a little more formulaic. That alone isn’t it though. Fairness has been a factor too. As someone who takes players’ feelings into account more than most of his managerial contemporaries, the Gunners chief has, I think, been reluctant to knock his fellow Frenchman’s confidence. Performing his job properly, delivering a level of productivity that can’t be questioned; there have been no grounds for change. Taking Giroud’s headspace into account, the Gunners boss extended his run in the side. He has also been the right player, at the right time. West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Preston North End, Swansea City and Burnley have been the last six opponents, and with the exception of the Cherries (until late on) all those teams that were happy to sit deep, and adopt a containing stance.

Trip to Chelsea on the horizon

In those scenarios – as Liverpool have recently discovered to their cost – it helps to have a target man to aim for. If there’s precious little space to weave patterns and pierce gaps that rarely exist, it’s handy to have someone decent you can hang crosses up to inside the final third. In those contests Arsenal used that tactic well. That was then, but this is now. With trips to Southampton, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Liverpool looming on the horizon, matches which could define the Gunners’ season, there will be different challenges to face. Wenger’s men will see less of the ball, they’ll come under more pressure, and counter attacks will become a significantly more important weapon. Therefore I think it’s screaming out for a return to strategy number one, with Alexis as the number 9. Stylistically, an air of unpredictability may help at Stamford Bridge, with runners swarming around their little firecracker whenever they break at speed. OK Chelsea have changed their system since, but that ploy worked like a dream at Emirates Stadium, and it’s won’t be easy for Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta to completely erase the scars they collected in that 3-0 loss in North London. Ask them for an honest answer, and all three would confess they’d rather mark Giroud than Arsenal’s number 7. I see Alexis the Striker as tailor-made for Chelsea.

Conte’s defence doesn’t like being pressed, they often leave space in behind the wingbacks, and as Spurs proved at White Hart Lane, if one centre back can be dragged away from the middle, holes begin to appear inside the area. When Alexis, a master at pulling players out of position, drops into unusual pockets you can be sure Ozil, Ramsey and the fit again Walcott will pile into the box next weekend. His eagerness to close down would also push the team ten yards up field, squeezing the space for Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Pedro to work in. Back in September, none of the Chelsea forwards had room to do their usual thing. Plan B has served it’s purpose very nicely around the turn of the year, and it’s reminded fans of Olivier Giroud’s importance – but it’s time for the first choice game plan to be brought back out.

With the finish line in sight, and Alexis destined to be a Golden Boot contender, a tactical freshen-up now, could help to change the title landscape. Scoring goals and winning matches makes their main man happy. Stick him back up front, and there’s more chance everyone at Arsenal will also have smiles on their faces at the end of the season.

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January 27th, 2017 by

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