Arsene Wenger took the surprise decision to start Alexis Sanchez in a central attacking role at the start of the season after Olivier Giroud was given an extended break following his Euro 2016 excursions.
For many, it was a change that would never work. Alexis’ short stature and supposed inability to play with his back to goal meant he surely couldn’t flourish as a target man. However, those criticisms were quickly put to bed as the Chilean has gone on to score 15 goals and provide seven assists so far this season – more than anyone else when combined together in Europe’s big five leagues.
“Sanchez was happy out wide because in his head he was a wide player. Today it would be more difficult for him to do that maybe, but when I play him there I must say honestly it it is not a problem. He accepts it very well,” said Wenger.
“He has developed very well as a centre forward because I think he has found a good mixture between coming off and going in behind, and he has more freedom as well and he takes advantage of his short technique in the middle much more.”
Alexis’ impressive numbers pay testament to Wenger’s trial and error method of management that saw him persevere with Sanchez up front even when it wasn’t working. An example of that could be seen when Arsenal played champions Leicester at the King Power Stadium in August. Alexis started through the middle in an exciting looking Gunners line-up which featured the likes of Santi Cazorla and Granit Xhaka. However, Alexis was forced to spend much of the match dropping back to collect the ball – with swathes of the game being played in midfield.
Wenger’s persistence eventually paid off and we’ve seen this season what he can do when he’s afforded a free role in the traditional No.9 position. Alexis' unique qualities enable him to play on the shoulder of defenders while he can also drop short to collect the ball and play one-twos with team-mates in close proximity to him. He is also an expert at holding up the ball due to his brute strength.
“The solution of Alexis up front has worked well and I have two options at the moment,” said Wenger.
“Olivier Giroud is in both options because Alexis can play on the flank. Olivier can only play through the middle, so I can sometimes marry the two together.”
Indeed, when Arsenal fans are asked who they want to see in the side, Sanchez is regularly the first name coming out of their mouths. But for all the success and entertainment the Chilean brings through the middle, it must be acknowledged that Giroud has responded brilliantly to those who claimed he would struggle to get back into the Arsenal team this season.
Ten goals and four assists in 14 games this campaign is a magnificent return for a player who has again been forced to prove himself as a substitute. He was named Arsenal’s Player of the Month in January after four goals and two assists in six games - including crucial strikes against Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and in the FA Cup match at Preston North End.
Opta’s data science team give insight into Giroud’s deadliness in front of goal by demonstrating that he has taken shots from much better locations than Sanchez this season (see graphics below).
Opta's Expected Goals (xG) model measures how likely a particular shot is to be scored. It's based on distance to the goal, angle to the goal, assist type, whether or not it was headed and a variety of other factors. This assigns an xG value between 0 and 1 that reflects how likely the shot is to be scored. So, for example, 0.3 xG means a shot will typically be scored 30% of the time.
Giroud has a higher xG rate per shot than Alexis and his xG value per 90 minutes is also slightly higher - 0.47 xG/90 min for Giroud and 0.42 xG/90 for Alexis.
It is worth noting that attacking players who regularly come on as substitutes tend to have slightly higher xG numbers than forwards who start matches. This is due to substitutes having extra energy and playing against defenders who are less fresh than them. It is also because a substitute striker is more likely to be introduced when his team needs a goal – thus meaning his team will take more risks in pushing for a goal.
These Opta statistics provide great evidence as to why Wenger has used Giroud perfectly this season. Ultimately, he has contributed to the team when opposition defenders are more tired and is more useful as an impact substitute rather than a starting striker.
When Arsenal face Chelsea on Saturday at Stamford Bridge, a decision will be made on whether Giroud or Alexis will start in the No.9 role. All the evidence suggests the Frenchman may be better suited emerging from the bench during the second half.