A second strong performance in a week suggested Alexis Sánchez is close to finding his best form again.
A stop-start season has undoubtedly held the Chilean back but the big change in the games against Barcelona and Everton was his position.
Playing from the left-hand side for the vast majority of his Arsenal career, Alexis has been devastating at his best but became predictable and stifled at his worst. It’s shown for the majority of the season, with the Chilean looking to dive inside onto his favoured right foot only to be met by the body of a defender anticipating his move.
Though it’s never easy to stop someone as strong and technically gifted as Alexis, it’s much easier when you can anticipate his every move. Arsenal managed to get a burst of form from the 27-year-old in the autumn thanks to an adaptation in our recycling of the ball. Using Héctor Bellerín higher up the pitch and keeping the ball with Aaron Ramsey out wide, the Gunners could isolate Alexis against the opposition right-back, where he caught them off guard.
Matteo Darmian was very much a rabbit in headlights when confronted by Alexis in Arsenal’s 3-0 demolition of Manchester United.
Injuries to Aaron Ramsey and then Santi Cazorla and Alexis himself saw Arsenal depart from the tactical tweak getting the best from the former Barcelona man but Wenger’s latest switch could yet work the same magic.
Playing from the right rather than the left, Alexis’ next move is never obvious. A powerful runner driven to score goals but also a technically gifted player, he is torn between going by his fullback on the outside and drifting inside to join in with play. On the left the choice is clear: join in centrally and go on your stronger side. On the right? Pick one or the other.
If you try to force Alexis wide on the right, he’ll go wide and beat you. If you force him inside you let him get closer to the goal and there’s no chance he’ll decline the invitation. He’s pretty deadly in either situation.
On Saturday, Arsenal’s first goal came from Alexis darting inside and putting Danny Welbeck through on goal. It could have happened from the other side of the pitch, but it would’ve been anticipated much better. Driving into a dangerous space, Alexis wasn’t reluctant to use his left foot when it was the best option and Arsenal were 1-0 up within the opening eight minutes.
It was his second assist in as many games after a smart cutback found Mohamed Elneny on the edge of the box in Camp Nou. Isolated incidents they may be, but Arsenal’s second goal at Old Trafford last month also came from Alexis drifting to the right and picking someone out; the Chilean is so good at beating his man and also excellent at picking a player out from wide areas, if only he’d do it more often.
Driving at the opposition defences is something Arsenal fans probably don’t see often enough, but Alexis does it brilliantly when he wants to. He should have had two penalties at Goodison Park, darting into the box and being taken out twice in a matter of seconds. Alexis’s game juts becomes more spontaneous when he isn’t on the left and it makes everything more exciting and more dangerous; how are you supposed to stop a plyer that good if you don’t know what he’s going to do?
One of the biggest issues Alexis has had with his game at Arsenal is his movement. Expected to be the team’s main goal threat and usually paired with the cumbersome Olivier Giroud, the idea has surely been for Alexis to make darting runs in behind the defence. Problem is, playing from the left, Alexis has wanted to come inside far more than he’s wanted to drive forward off the ball. Giroud’s role also doesn’t open space up for his fellow players to attack and it’s left Alexis joining in as another midfielder rather than actually becoming a forward from out wide.
On the right and with Danny Welbeck, things are likely to change. At Barcelona and Udinese, Alexis almost exclusively played on the right and his movement off the ball was much more about getting at goal and racing onto passes or receiving the ball in the box. Welbeck opens space to enable that and, from the right, Alexis will be far more inclined to make those angled runs beyond the defence.
The difference, of course, is Alex Iwobi. Used on the left, the 19-year-old Nigerian international is already offering things nobody else in the Arsenal squad isn’t able to. That’s on the manager, but that’s another piece altogether. To get Alexis over to the right and at his destructive best, Arsenal have needed a calming presence on the left. Samir Nasri and Santi Cazorla have both played the role very well in the past, happy to become an extra central player or stay wide and offering a very secure option in possession. Alex Iwobi, so far, has been just that.
Theo Walcott has played on that side of the pitch but only proven how limited he is, incapable of protecting the ball and rarely involved in the game. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is more chaotic so hasn’t even been tried there and Aaron Ramsey simply isn’t quick enough to play out wide on his unfavoured side.
As mentioned, Cazorla used to play this role but is no longer dynamic enough to play wide. Let’s not even contemplate the idea of Jack Wilshere staying fit, none of us is that naïve. No, instead of that Iwobi has been given a chance and he’s taken it. Enabling Alexis to play on the other side of the pitch is just a superb bonus and a massive reason to keep the Arsenal academy graduate in the side.
Statistically, it’s too early to prove a difference in Alexis’ game on the right, but for the sake of it let’s have a look anyway. So far this season, Alexis has completed 3.41 take-ons per 90 minutes in the Premier League, completing 56% of his attempted dribbles beyond opposition players and managed over two key passes per game. The numbers are pretty consistent with last season.
Against Barcelona and Everton, the winger has completed a huge 11 take-ons, a mightily impressive 68.75% of all the take-ons he’s attempted. That number, and certainly that percentage, is likely to come down across a bigger sample size but it’s encouraging nonetheless that the data confirms the impression we are seeing more of Alexis on the ball on the right, and that he’s being more efficient. His interplay has improved too, making seven key passes in those two games compared to just over two per 90 minutes until now.
Two of those passes have, of course, ended up being assists.
Enabled by the steady and impressive performances of Alex Iwobi on the opposite flank, we’re finally seeing a right-sided Alexis and it’s good.
He’s learnt how to play on that side of the pitch for both Udinese and Barcelona. It’s something other Premier League clubs aren’t used to and haven’t had to deal with. The season’s been disappointing for Alexis so far but, if we use him on the right more often, I’ll just sit back and enjoy the show.