29 August 2014

Giroud's injury= the unleashing of Alexis. And Walcott. And Özil...

I'll admit that my first reaction to learning of Giroud's injury, the one that will Diabytize him until late December or early January, was one of despair. After all, for all of his notable flaws, he's proven instrumental to our attack. While he may never achieve the goal-scoring heights of van Persie (a standard he himself only met two or three times at best in eight seasons), Giroud has been asked to play a different role, that of hold-up man, grappler, battering ram. Amidst a squad of flitty, hobbitesque wingers and midfielders, we've arguably needed such a titan. Then again, his scything-down may just prove to be the opening we need to see a return to a more-fluid, dynamic attack with Alexis offering the pace and touch we've lacked at the vanguard of our attack since, well, since Henry. There. I said it.

I don't mean to equate Alexis with Henry, not by any stretch. However, I would like to submit that Alexis could play a role similar to Henry's, that of a mobile striker whose pace and flexibility suit Arsène's vision for an amoeba-esque attack, with players exchanging both ball and position, overloading and overwhelming defenses by defying their expectations of who's going to be where. Giroud is a very static forward, committed (or limited) to a central channel extending from around midfield to the edge of the six. You'll rarely find him wider than the edges of the 18. That, of course, limits his options, makes him predictable, and forces others to work around him. Sometimes, it works. More often, it frustrates. When it does, it frustrates us, not the opposition.

Don't read too much into our toothlessness against Everton when Alexis was the lone striker. It was a new role, a new team, a new league. Everton can boast of stability, a stable squad in its second year under Martinez, and were primed to take advantage of our unsettled squad (three new starters, a new formation, players out of position...). With these factors in mind, Alexis was bound to suffer, and suffer he did.  At times, his movement was too extreme, as he dropped deep and moved wide to receive the ball or defend, bewildering opponents and teammates alike. In time, both he and the rest of our players will learn to understand each other better—something that started to happen as soon as four days later against Beşiktaş when we had little choice but to play Alexis through the middle. This time, it paid off, not just in final product but in process as well.

Whereas Alexis too often dropped down in search of the ball (or to defend) against Everton, he was more forward-thinking against Beşiktaş, pressing deep into the final third to put pressure on the defense. Along the way, he also explored other areas of the pitch, popping up along sidelines and generally making a nuisance of himself here, there, and everywhere, daring defenders to track him. While this didn't produce goals directly, it had an unsettling effect that did lead to the goal we needed. Instead of running vertically from the centre-spot to the penalty-spot, as Giroud so often does, Alexis mixes in a variety of horizontal and diagonal runs, offering himself as a target-man (of sorts) while creating space into which others behind him can run.

And that brings me to Walcott. Yes, we're still weeks away from his return, so we're dwelling on the threshold of the promise of something. Over the last few seasons, Walcott has, by choice or by force, occupied a very narrow, very short channel of space on the pitch—take the edge of the 18 and extend it halfway towards midfield, and that's where Walcott will be. With Alexis playing as the linch-pin, Walcott should get more freedom to roam. The width and pace he's offered to this point should not suffer too much, as it's augmented by the interchange he can have with Alexis. Ponder it. Instead of Walcott waiting, waiting, waiting for Giroud to turn and find him on the right, Walcott and Alexis could take turns running in behind the defense on the right, through the middle, maybe even on the left.

As if that's not enough, think back to how often we've seen a counter-attack die out because Giroud received the ball at or around midfield with a handful of defenders to beat. One might hope that he'd unleash a counter-attack like the days of yore. Howver, his lack of pace has too often meant that we'd have to settle for a slower, more-gradual build-up as Giroud either (a) succeeded in holding onto the ball until teammates made runs or (b) was dispossessed. In place of that, then, we could see a return to the early Arsènian days of devastating counter-attacks, with the likes of Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla, or Özil turning upfield with the ball and seeing Alexis or Walcott ready to run in behind the defense to collect a perfectly-weighted through-ball.

Again, I don't mean to make too much of certain comparisons (is it Alexis or Walcott who fills Henry's shoes? Does Özil reprise Bergkamp's role? And so on). However, I will say that some of our greatest glories under Arsène have come when we've had a mobile striker and a fluid attack. Target-men, like Adebayor, van Persie, and Giroud have filled in, but it may be time for us to return to a more-dynamic attack. For better or for worse, they've encouraged us to dominate possession, shoving opponents deeper into the last third while we struggle to find chances in those tight spaces inside the 18.

Instead of us absorbing pressure or defending corners only to see a counter-attack fizzle because Giroud can't take on a defender, we could enjoy the threat and guarantee of fleet-footed attackers running in behind a defensive line that had pressed as high as midfield. Whether it's Alexis or Walcott with the ball at his feet, or Cazorla or Özil or others playing a pass behind that defense for them to run onto, Giroud's sidelining could bring out the best of Alexis, Özil, and Walcott, among others, and that would truly be a sight to behold.