Arsenal’s reformulated front four has mostly destroyed all that it has come up against this season. The movement has been fluid, the passing has been crisp and there has usually been runners in behind the defence to create chances. The only exception has been against teams who have sat deep and flooded the midfield, and Arsenal have struggled to find a way through.
Against Burnley, it took the arm of Koscielny to score the only goal against an organised defensive team. On Saturday against Middlesbrough, Arsenal couldn’t find a breakthrough as it finished 0-0. While it was admirable and made for an exciting game against Ludogorets, the opposition on that night were naive and left Arsenal plenty of space to carve out opportunities, but Middlesbrough learnt from that performance from the Bulgarians and shut down the Gunners’ attacking game.
The inability to break down deep defenses has been the only real concern about using Alexis as a central striker. When there is space in the game, he can pull defenders around and if he isn’t running beyond the defense, Theo Walcott or Mesut Ozil usually are. But when a team eliminates the space between the defense and the midfield, and in behind the defense, the Chilean often goes wondering deeper to get involved in the game, meaning Arsenal then lack a focal point to distract the defenders.
In general, Arsenal haven’t missed Olivier Giroud this season. But against Burnley, and against Middlesbrough on Saturday, the lack of a plan B was obvious. When Arsenal started crossing into the box later in the game, it was easy for the Middlesbrough defenders to head the ball away. Alexis has a great leap, but isn’t the physical presence that causes a bit of chaos when a cross comes. The extra flicks and knock downs create different possibilities as he occupies defenders in these sort of games, creating the space for others.
It is why talk of Giroud’s Arsenal career coming to an end because of Alexis playing as a center-forward, or of the Frenchman no longer being important, is somewhat misguided. He remains an excellent player and offers Arsenal a completely different dimension to anyone else in the squad. On Saturday, Lucas Perez came on and Arsenal did shift slightly to a 4-4-2 with Lucas playing alongside Alexis, but his style of play is still reliant on having a bit of running space and working between the lines of midfield and defense.
Along with Giroud, Arsenal also badly missed Santi Cazorla. Mohamed Elneny replaced the Spaniard because of a slight injury, and while Elneny didn’t play badly and has been unlucky to not have more game time this season, he isn’t Santi Cazorla. In similar games where Arsenal dominate possession, two more defensive-minded midfielders aren’t needed, so someone with the guile and quality of Cazorla would have been ideal to help create chances in such a tight game.
It was obvious last season how important Cazorla is to Arsenal’s midfield. When he was out last year, the Gunners’ season stuttered badly. Hopefully the slight knock that kept him out of the game on Saturday isn’t serious as Arsene Wenger will need him fit for the bigger games in November.
With Cazorla and Giroud available, the Gunners may well have found a way past Middlesbrough, but it is something for Arsene Wenger to think about. The more teams see the Gunners unable to get through a side playing deep, the more they will have to face opposition teams who deploy that style.
Had it not been for some excellent stops from Petr Cech, Middlesbrough’s disciplined and dogged display would have brought them three points. Adama Traore was dangerous on the break and could have snatched a goal or two but for the big Czech keeper.
The draw is disappointing as a win would have opened up a two-point lead at the top of the table, but the results this weekend across the division show that this title race is going to be very tight. Plenty of teams will drop unexpected points this season, so Arsenal have to resolve issues against deep, defensive teams as, even though the phrase ‘there’s no easy games’ is a bad cliché, it does ring true this season.