I’ve watched the Arsenal vs Hull City match nearly four times now, I will watch the rest of the 2nd half after I write this piece I suppose. I don’t watch every game as often as this and I know it is ‘only’ Hull City but watching the game on first viewing was really good fun. It felt great to see us combine the way we did for parts of that game. Those combinations have not always been there in the last few weeks.
When dismissing the opposition completely, It’s probably worth remembering that it needed an injury time goal for big spenders Manchester United to beat them at their ground. And let us not forget just yet that only Hull beat Leicester City who are the champs and all on the opening day of the season. We will face much stronger teams this season but Hull City have not been the whipping boys or anything like that.
I am here to write about a conversation I had on Twitter with Wenger Boy, formerly of this parish. We spoke about Alexis Sanchez and his new centre forward role. It is a conversation I have had with a few people so I wanted to do a bit of digging around to get some more information on his games so far this season.
So the concern is that Alexis moves away from his centre forward spot a little too often for fans liking. This is a concern I have had myself. I bemoaned the fact that we had a player who was capable of nearly everything someone like Sergio Aguero was capable of but our Alexis just didn't think like a striker, maybe that is true, maybe not but it's worth exploring a little further.
On his league debut against Everton if I remember correctly, he started at centre forward and as he tends to do, he moved all over the pitch in search of the ball and we had very little presence at central striker. Giroud came on at half time in place of the new boy and Giroud made a big impact in the game, going on to score the equaliser and earn us a draw from 2-0 down.
Pretty much since then Alexis has been moved onto the flanks until this season. There were many stages last season where I wondered what Alexis would be like as a central striker if given a run in that position. I had mumbled these thoughts several times on Twitter, as you do.
When I think of what Alexis could be as CF I think of his Hull City goal in the cuphttps://t.co/FwoT9doqYD— Mean Lean (@arsenalvision) September 2, 2015
Instead of Alexis dribbling past players on the half way line and often giving the ball away, wouldn’t he be best served doing that in the opposition penalty area. Instead of using all his energy chasing the opposition all around the pitch he could do it from the front. Could we find a striker better than Alexis if he could adjust his game accordingly?
Arsene made it clear that he was on the look out for a new striker and failed with a bid to sign Jamie Vardy. We eventually brought Lucas Perez to the club but it looks as if Arsene is backing the Chile forward to adjust his game and become our very own Luis Suarez. Well that is what the boss said.
Last month, before the Leicester City match, Arsene Wenger said:
on whether Alexis can play in long-term as central striker…
I think so, yes. I think it is worth it to try as he has the quality to go behind. Honestly he did not have the most convincing game [against Liverpool] - he is one of them who is not completely ready physically. We did not dominate the game as much as we would have liked in midfield and he suffered a little bit from that as well. But on the flanks he uses a lot of energy by chasing back and I would like to use his energy sometimes a bit more efficiently by going behind the defenders as he is a good finisher. He has played centre forward at Barcelona.
Since then we have seen a mixed bag from Alexis.
Ok so I did the eye test first and I thought it would be interesting to follow that up with some heatmaps and get some visual stats on what he did during the games.
My gut told me that Alexis has been slowly reigning in his tendency to drift out of the central areas or at least reduce the amount of times he does this. I noticed Alexis standing in central areas far more against Hull City compared to say Watford.
The heatmaps seem to agree with me on this.
There seems to be significant differences between both the PSG and Hull City matches compared to previous matches this season. Even more so when you consider the fact that he moved wide against PSG when Giroud entered the field so that would have distorted his average touch positions I'd imagine.
Let’s ignore the Liverpool game for now as he only managed to touch the ball 27 times which is crazy for Alexis. He touched the ball more than double that away at one of the strongest clubs in European football at the moment. I suspect Alexis would be far more involved if that game was played today but it’s not so let us move on.
Against Leicester City and Watford he was wide left for a lot of those games, maybe that was his natural instinct of maybe that is by design, I will go into that shortly.
So as a means of comparison I pulled up Zlatan’s heat map against Hull City recently. A player you would consider as a ‘proper centre forward’ would you agree? and it is against the same team at the same venue.
Well this was his heat map
As you can see it is very similar to Alexis in terms of his average position on the pitch. His touches are way down compared to Alexis but that is probably because a) Hull City went down to 10 men against us and b) booting the ball long to Fellaini is Jose’s preferred tactic (probably)
Let’s use another example as a means of comparison. Which striker in the Premier League do Gooners lust after? Sergio Aguero would win that contest wouldn’t he?
I thought I’d use his latest game against Borussia Mönchengladbach because he scored a hat trick.
As you can see, he wasn’t stationed in the middle of the pitch waiting to do his funky stuff, and to be fair his stuff is quite funky. He roamed around all over the pitch. I think the best modern forwards drift a lot more than we think they do.
But it is not right to judge Alexis at centre forward on his own because I feel his success largely depends on his attacking partners.
Arsene Wenger’s comments on Theo Walcott told us quite a bit recently.
“I look at the overall balance of the team. As I told you, we need players who go behind the defenders and he can do that well. When Sanchez plays up front, he likes to come to the ball.
“To have someone who goes behind at the same moment helps us to have many options.”
It struck me in pre season against Manchester City. At that stage we did not know whether or not Theo Walcott would be a fixture in this Arsenal team once more and if Alexis would continue up front but when they produced this goal together something jumped out at me.
This isn’t new under Arsene Wenger, his best teams had something very similar. Thierry Henry loved to pull to the left and Freddie Ljungberg would make a similar Walcott run from the right into scoring positions. Robert Pires was the wide playmaker who scored goals also taking Henry’s position in the centre. Can Iwobi continue to score goals and make assists? Too much to ask? Time will tell I guess.
My eye test told me that Theo occupied the centre forward position just as much as Alexis but the heatmaps did not show that. I used the Watford (a) game as an example for Theo because Alexis spent so much time wide left in that game. Theo had stayed wider than I thought he might have, although the red circle clearly shows that trademark run of his.
But it's not just Theo Walcott who is asked to move into those position. Look at a few clips of the first half.
What seems clear to me is the fact that most of our moves come from that left/central position. There is a little box of switching players and it is not just down to Walcott to move into those spaces but also Mesut Ozil and Alex Iwobi. It must be a nightmare for defenders to have to try and mark this rotating circle of attacking players all popping up in between the lines and then whoosh someone is running into the space that Alexis has left behind. This looks planned and choreographed to me. We got a hint of it last season when Welbeck came into the team with Iwobi and Alexis on the right and our attacking play improved considerably. It's the way Arsene wants to play football and it's probably why a player like Lucas Perez has been signed. A player who is comfortable in both positions on the flank and centrally. He can join the circle of fun. Maybe this is why we have seen little of Giroud so far this season, maybe his fitness is a smokescreen and what Arsene really wants is to move towards mobility as a way of spreading goals around his team. That is not to say that Giroud isn't an excellent player, he most certainly is but our style changes with Giroud in the starting line up. If Perez starts ahead of him on Tuesday from that position then i think that may well confirm that but we'll see.
So what is the point of all this? Two things I suppose. Firstly I think it is too early to judge Alexis as a centre forward. We have already seen an adjustment in his game and secondly I don’t think his movements away from the centre forward is a bad thing, in fact it may well be an instruction from the manager. Our best two performances of the season have come with Alexis at centre forward, scoring three at Watford and four at Hull City. It might be also why Arsene wants more goals from Mesut Ozil this season because he is one of those asked to move into the central striking position when the chance presents itself.
If Perez is the man to replace Alexis at centre forward then don’t expect a man standing around in the box waiting for tap ins, that’s not going to happen. We will see much of the same but just players starting in different positions but the idea will be much the same I believe.
It's all very early and premature so let us see how we cope against the better teams in the league, we may well know a little more about this against Chelsea on the weekend. Hopefully we can teach the likes of David Luiz and co a few football tips come the final whistle. A victory against Chelsea could give the team a massive boost of confidence as the games come thick and fast.
Podcast being recorded tonight so it should be out tomorrow, keep your eyes and ears pealed for that.